Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Active Reading: Train Your Eye To See the Details

Ghost Plant close-up, taken on the Munger Trail.
"You see, but you do not observe" (A. C. Doyle, "A Scandal in Bohemia")

I take a lot of photos of the wildflowers, mushrooms, and other things I see when I'm biking along the Munger Trail.  I have approximately 4,000 images on my home computer, and about 7,000 on my Flickr account. I share a lot of my photos on Facebook, too.  

Sometimes people tell me they don't "have a good eye" for photography, meaning they think they can't take good photos. Or they tell me that they never see what I see. 

I said in a recent post that noticing details (in the woods or in a
This screenshot shows the original
photo, before I cropped it.  
book you're reading) requires slowing down and stopping to look. I really believe people can train their eyes to see the photographic potential in whatever scene confronts them. It's also fairly simple to learn some basic photo-editing skills; using those skills can make a mediocre shot into a much better photo. 

If you're not used to reading a text closely, you can get better at it over time. It just takes practice. I said on the first day of classes that you shouldn't save your reading for late at night. Be alert and awake when you read. That's the first step.  

Secondly, be an active reader. As you read, 
  • stop and think, from time to time; 
  • stop and ask questions;
  • stop and write down your thoughts. 
Bumblebee on Culver's Root Flower, Munger Trail. I was in the right place
at the right time. A week later, these flowers on the edge of the Trail
had been mowed down. 
Notice how being active requires you to stop--and then do something! Passive readers just keep on going, without thinking, without noticing, without doing anything. They allow themselves to be carried along on the tide of the narrative ... and that's fine, if you're only reading for entertainment. But if you're reading to understand, to learn how narratives work, to discover what constitutes good writing, and to improve your critical thinking skills, then you have to be an active reader.

For about four years now, in all four seasons, I've been obsessively observing, or reading, if you will, the same ten-mile stretch of Munger Trail, and I'm still finding plants I haven't seen before--because I keep on looking. The Culver's Root flowers to the left, for instance, are new to me:  they've been there, flowering each year, I'm sure, but I never noticed them until this summer. 

Ghost Plants, with brown seed pods.
The same is true of the Ghost Plant. I've never noticed them until this summer. At first, I saw only a few groups of these pale, semi-transparent phantoms, rising up from the darkness, but then, as I biked farther, looking even more carefully into the shadows along the edges of the Trail, I began to see them everywhere. The very act of paying attention seems to make more and more hidden details visible. 

These last fews weeks, as I've been observing the Ghost Plants, watching the flowers disintegrate and the seed pods take their place, I realized that, in the past, I've seen seed pods like these along the Trail in the Autumn, but I never knew they were Ghost Plant seed pods. Somehow, I've always missed the flowers, until this year. Perhaps I was never in the right place at the right time. Of course, the key to being in the right place at the right time is to be in the right place all the time

Yellow Lady Slipper, Munger Trail.
What that means for reading is that sometimes you have to read the same text over a few times 
before you notice all the important details. The very first time I ever biked Munger four years ago, all I saw were Trilliums. When I came back for a second look a week later, I saw Lady Slippers. I've been finding new patches of Lady Slippers ever since. 

Look up the slope, & you get one view...
I'm a big fan of re-reading good books, and I also like to watch good movies more than once. Anything worth seeing once is usually worth a second look. Some of you (my AP Lit students) will read Jane Eyre for the first time this year. When we get to a certain point in that novel, I'll make you re-read an earlier section, and that re-reading will change your perception of the whole novel. I'm also a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock films--if we have enough time this year in English 12, and if you're interested, maybe we'll watch a Hitchcock film and look (really look, and look yet again) at how it's put together.
Look down the same slope, & you see
something else.

Over the Labor Day Weekend, I was biking the Trail on Saturday morning, and I saw one other sight I never noticed before--Clayton G and his dad! I didn't get a photo--they were moving fast, and I wasn't expecting to see anybody I knew. But that's my point, about Munger and about books, isn't it? You never know what you'll find until you look. 

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