How to Read: Part 1 – Meet the Trivium

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series How to Read

Yes, of course I know you know how to read. If you are looking at this at all, you’ve already proven you are literate.

But there is reading, and there is reading. I’m talking about the latter.

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” —Francis Bacon

I, too, thought I knew how to read. But it wasn’t until I started pursuing writing as a career that I began to feel like I was missing something critical. I knew, in theory, that it was possible to learn from these masters, but I didn’t know how.

Like someone with extreme nearsightedness, I couldn’t separate myself from the stories enough to see what the writers were actually doing. I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

Then, a couple things happened:

First, I came across Susan Wise Bauer’s splendid book The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had. The book talks about the classical method of learning, called the trivium, where you break things into three separate parts and do each separately.

  1. The grammar stage, where you learn the facts.
  2. The logic stage, where you analyze what you’ve learned. (This step, it turned out, was the missing piece. More on this later…)
  3. The rhetoric stage, where you express your opinion about what you’ve learned as persuasively as you can.

Second, I started grad school. And it was pursuing my MFA in creative writing that I started taking classes from, Junse Kim, a brilliant teacher and short story writer. His classes were all focused on teaching us how to read for craft and technique.

He never mentioned the word “trivium”, but what he taught us basically boiled down to the same thing: identify a craft technique in something we’d read (grammar), figure out how it worked (logic), and try to imitate it (rhetoric).

And I spent two years (the majority of my MFA) taking classes from Mr. Kim because he had us practice this simple method of learning over and over and over again—simple in theory, hard in practice. He likened it to a pianist practicing scales. How could one become a virtuoso unless one has already committed the basics to muscle memory?

I’ll be honest, learning how to slow down and really pay attention to what I was reading—without getting sucked into the story or jumping to conclusions—was really hard to do. Blame it on the modern American education, but I felt like I was exercising parts of my brain I’d never used before.

In The Well-Educated Mind, Susan Wise Bauer states:

Classrooms too often skip the first two steps [grammar and logic] and progress directly to the third [rhetoric], which is why so many elementary texts insist on asking six-year-olds how they feel about what they are learning, long before they’ve properly had a chance to learn it.

This mental short cut has become a habit for many adults, who are ready to give their opinions long before they’ve had a chance to understand the topic under study. (Listen to any call-in radio show.)

And the habit of leaping directly to the rhetoric stage can prevent even mature minds from learning how to read properly.

[Note: Paragraph breaks are mine.]

I had to physically slow myself down by reading with a pencil by underlining every time the writer shifted psychic distance or used a physical setting detail (or whatever it was that I was trying to learn). I felt like I was learning how to read all over again.

Just as exercise can make a weak muscle strong, I too began to improve. Now I can read (or watch) just about anything and figure out how it works with, what feels like, minimal effort.

Junse Kim and Susan Wise Bauer have forever changed the way I read and write. My reading experience is richer and fuller than it ever was before. I feel like I’m able to admire and learn from other writers on a level that was totally hidden to me before.

As a writer who had previously been limited to learning how to write from craft books, I am no longer dependent on fish scraps from someone else’s table: I can now fish for myself. (Catch a man a fish, you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.) I now have access to an ocean of knowledge that already exists around me.

For both those things, I will be forever grateful.


Suggested Reading:

  • The Well-Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer
  • Write Like the Masters by William Cane
Series NavigationHow to Read: Part 2 – The Grammar Stage >>

About E.S.O. Martin

E.S.O. Martin is a writer, a California native, and a graduate of SF State's Creative Writing MFA program.
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