Reading Tack – T.J. Moretti

Before I could read well, I would read diagonally. I’d start at the first few words of a paragraph then coast southeast until I came to the last paragraph. I’d read pages, chapters that way. I think my first experience with this reading tactic was high school freshman year: I had to read Martian Chronicles, so I tacked through it. I haven’t picked up the book since, and I have no idea what it is about, except Martians.

I’d act like a pompous captain of a motorized schooner. Sail furled, I’d plow through a bay, leave speedboats and houseboats in my wake, and feel proud that I had sailed. When reading, I would not tack. I would not work. That was the problem.

I don’t sail, but I know what it means to tack. To move from point to point in a real sailboat, sailors sometimes face headwinds. They have to zig and zag against the wind, sometimes charting a course 1-89° from their actual destination, because of wind velocity, direction, sand bars, or other boats. Tacking is zigging and zagging. It might feel like a detour, but the destination is always clear. (Any sailors out there, correct me if I’m wrong. Correct me in person. Invite me on your boat, in the summer, for a party.)

When I read diagonally, I wasn’t tacking in the true sense of the maneuver. I behaved as if I could measure my comprehension and knowledge based on pages flipped. I mean, I got to the end of the book, didn’t I?

If you think that such a reading strategy is ridiculous, I’m glad, but reading diagonally has different degrees. If a reader skims a paragraph, yes, the reader is reading diagonally. If the reader plows through a sentence without understanding the words and phrases in the sentence, the reader is also reading diagonally. It doesn’t matter if you’ve looked at the words; if you don’t understand them, but keep reading anyway, you might just be a pompous reading captain who is too concerned about the number on the page, usually diagonal from the words you should be concerned about.

Solution? Slow down and tack, even if it feels like a detour that takes too many hours to tolerate. I had to do that when first reading Chaucer in Middle English—“The Knight’s Tale,” my sophomore year in college, spending hours in Philips Library at P.C. with the Riverside in front of me. Every word I’d sound out, every word I didn’t understand phonetically I looked up in the glossary. It took me over 4 hours. It was slow going.

I found that when I tacked slowly, I liked what I was doing. At one point, I read Lord Jim with dictionary.com opened at a computer station. The novella begins with all this nautical, seafaring talk, as if the reader is supposed to know what a jib is. I looked up every word, wrote the definition in my notes, read pages over and over, dead-eyed a guy who mocked me (“you’re using the computer for THAT?!”), and didn’t turn the page until I understood. When I finished, my eyes hurt, and I had dark bags under them. I read the book. I tacked through it.

What I didn’t do, and what I should have done, is read it with others. Talk about it with others who had to read it. Because sailing a boat all on your own is too isolating. So, perhaps some people read diagonally, rush through the pages, and get to the end without getting the ending not because they are pompous, but because they aren’t going to talk to anyone about it. They don’t plan on being social over it. But reading shouldn’t be a solitary trek.

So, welcome Spring 2018. Tack well, and tack with others.