How to Be a Literate Reader
(and Why Bother?)
Anyone reading anything is at the receiving end of a message. Every message, or communication, has a sender. If the sender and receiver use words and symbols that are understood by both, there will be understanding.
But if you, as a reader, do not know the words used by the writer/sender, you won’t benefit from what has been written. Much available wisdom will be closed to you. Whatever is known about what is going on in life will remain a puzzle to you.
Here are some examples of messages you might want to receive with a high degree of accuracy: laws that protect citizens, guidance for parents, a good joke, a path to mental and spiritual health.
That covers the why bother. But, short of going to Oxford, how can one become literate?
One way to become more literate, and therefore more able to receive written (and verbal) wisdom, is to read a book on a subject that matters to you—and don’t back away because the words are hard. The book should be challenging, but not overly difficult. For example, I once decided to learn Spanish. After learning some basic words and studying the rudiments of Spanish grammar, I picked up a book of Spanish stories with English translations on the opposite page. I read the Spanish story, looking up words in an English-Spanish dictionary as I read. Then I read the translation to ensure I hadn’t missed the point of the story. This was a pleasant exercise and it made me feel I could find my way around written Spanish. Eventually I tackled a good novel, buying a copy in Spanish and a copy of the English translation. It was fun.
Looking up words is equally important when reading in your native tongue. Look up unfamiliar words, and don’t try to guess the meaning from the context, even if you were told in school to do that. Guessing can get you in trouble. I even look up familiar words when I see them used in an unusual way.
I recently picked up a copy of Sydney E. Ahlstrom’s A Religious History of the American People. I wanted to know about my roots and, in particular, why my own church beginnings were so spiritually impoverished, why much that I was expected to believe seemed to run counter to my own observation of life. More basic, I wanted to know why I was discouraged from observing life for myself and urged to believe things that I could not observe. These are important issues for me and worth getting through a scholarly book to resolve.
Here are some examples of words I encountered in A Religious History of the American People that I either did not know, or did not know the meaning intended by the author.
Nugatory. I never heard or saw that word. It means having no influence or importance. Now there's a word I can use, as to insult someone or belittle their ideas!
Glebe. A tract of land given to a pastor of a church.
Vestry. I knew this word as a room attached to a church where the vestments, or religious garments, were stored and where meetings were held. But in this book I encountered a different meaning, a group of parishioners meeting to conduct church affairs. Looks like they were called that because they met in the vestry.
Now, these particular words may not interest you. Even the subject of the religious history of the US might not matter to you. The point is, no matter what you read, look up your words and punctuation to ensure you receive correctly the sent message. Use your dictionary as soon as any word or symbol puzzles you. Study all the meanings you find (except for specialized meanings such as legal or scientific, unless these apply) and read the word’s history, or derivation. The derivation will often shed light on the present meaning of the word. In the example above, vestry comes from vest a Latin word for clothe. This is of course where we get vest, a familiar article of clothing.
Tackle any subject you want to know about without fear that it will be too difficult. Take things a step at a time, get or create pictures and diagrams when you need to “see” what you are reading about, and look up you words. You will become literate, which is to say, able to receive any message vital to your life and interests.