… books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been toldUmberto Eco
During the #100daystooffload challenge, I wrote a quick primer on the basics of Finding Flow and how these steps help me in the writing process; for a process writing surely is. One of the key steps was to ‘read, tag, and retrieve’. The notion being that without reading widely, one is at a disadvantage. To read without tagging or note taking, is to rely on the fallibility of the human mind. To read, to tag, but not retrieve — is just lazy.
Thinking on the ways in which I try to redress the fallibility of my mind, and incorrigibly lazy spirit, brought me to reason more systematically about a process that now feels innate, but has taken a lifetime to develop and hone. I hope this provides a little context to the art of reading more efficiently and effectively.
Umberto Eco, one of the foremost semioticians, observed that we are wrong to think authors are the sole creators of their work. Rather, the speech and writing of an individual is analogous with a book in global library – but a book that listens and speaks to all the other works around it. Knowledge is thus the result of not only a timeless, but also a perpetual, process. A point that Wittgenstein had observed several decades earlier:
With written works forming part of a great, interconnected library of human thought, we are in something of a conundrum as to where to start. In other words, when you find something that piques your interest or want to know more about a topic, or seek to feel something new, it is important to not waste time on trash.
Sup From Great Literature
Some writers, even though they have something important to say, are, to put it mildly, rubbish writers. While others, have the gift of Clio, yet have nothing to say. Worse yet, some are cursed with neither poetry, nor prose, nor ideas. This is what makes the classics such a rich hunting ground for things to read. As a rule of thumb, that which has survived the test of time and has been read closely by generation after generation is often a reliable source of truth and literary quality. No, this does not mean that new books are junk or that old books are inherently truthful, but it does mean that the works of Homer, Marcus Aurelius, Dante, and Kant, have not survived to the present day by mere accident, but by being an endless treasure trove for the mind.
This is particularly the case, special pleading on my part no doubt, if the work is not philosophical in nature. That is, it yields training, skill development, or technical information. Materials of this type are often best found online as they can be more readily updated with the latest information as technology and professional practice change.
True, many will tell you, more recent research often refutes assertions made in the past. Which brings us to the next challenge, knowing when something has been shown to be false and when it has been falsified by the latest ideologically approved agenda. A reality which buttresses the notion of reading widely from literature of the past because if it is false, chances are more recent scholarship has not only highlighted its inaccuracies, but an even more recent scholar has raked over the coals of the most recent scholarship. In other words, the critics have been critiqued.
This is particularly the case of many revisionist histories that are being churned out at present as they are not correcting an inaccurate understanding of the historical record, rather, they are descending into negationism by drawing false conclusions from a cherry picking of genuine historical data. A process which not only is a waste of time to read, but one that actively erodes trust in the historical record, distorting the moral meaning that can be gleaned from the past.
Reading the classics also has the double benefit of teaching one to read with discernment. Simply because it is printed in a book does not make it true. But only by reading materials can one make a judgement call, rather than running pell-mell after a misguided trendy belief. I came across just such an example a little while ago in conversation with a colleague. She was quite distraught about her teenage daughter. When I asked as to the cause — drugs, teen pregnancy, alcoholism – was surprised to hear the fear she was going off the rails was that she had started reading Nietzsche. Amused by such an unusual fear from a parent for the soul of their child, I asked why she thought it was so problematic. “Because” came the response, “Nietzsche was a nihilist!” Err, no he was not. A fact that could have been readily ascertained by picking up one of his tracts at random, rather than being sucked into the junk knee-jerk philosophical activism that is rife on the modern university campus.
But how to read with discernment?
Modes of Reading
Mortimer J. Adler was a most remarkable man. Educator, encyclopedist, and philosopher, who was as at home writing dense scholastic tracts as he was penning a popular work for the mass market. One of his more important mass market books was the 1940s ‘modern classic’ How to Read a Book. In it, he observed there are four types of reading:
- Elementary Reading – or what we are taught in elementary school when we first learn to read. It is uncritical, and concerned with understanding the basic meaning of the words and puzzling out the sentence, rather than testing the argument being put forward.
- Inspectional Reading – takes elementary reading a step further and enables the reader to understanding the gist of what was written and take it away for later use. Inspectional reading is a valuable method when one is coming to grips with a topic, as it enables the systematic skimming of a text for later analysis.
- Analytical Reading – involves a ‘close’ reading of the material. Classifying the key arguments, understanding the book well enough to articulate its general meaning to someone new to the subject matter, and being able to define the problem the author was trying to solve and having a clear idea if they were successful.
- Syntopical Reading – involves not only an analytical reading of the book in question, but also many other books and articles on the same subject matter. This form of reading, sometimes called comparative reading, transcends learning, and shifts into modes of critical thought and understanding a complex problem at a metaphysical level.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the modes of reading, as outlined by Adler, is that they are not a progression in which one starts at elementary and then progresses to Syntopical, never to fall back to a ‘lower’ level. It is for this reason I prefer to think of the approaches as modes rather than levels – as the latter concept carries with it notions of being better.
Instead, reading well is the result of matching the reading mode to the desired outcome. Wanting to read instructions for a new recipe, or grasp the meaning of a meme, elementary will likely get the job done with minimal cognitive load. Needing to crest the waves of a broad and difficult subject matter, a systematic skim of several books and articles leveraging Inspectional reading will serve you best. Stepping up to master a subject, analytical reading will be needed to get the job done. Wanting to assess an author on the veracity of their output, anything short of Syntopical reading is unlikely to enable you to do that.
It Is Not A Competition
Never be ashamed if you are a slow reader. For what little it is worth, I am a positively ponderous reader — when I find something worth reading. Diving into other books, reference materials, defining the words used, fact checking each assertion; I can spend forty minutes or more reading a single paragraph as onlookers adopt bemused smiles as the page never seems to turn. Thus, never be shamed by others who may tease you for being slow to read. It is seldom how quickly we finish that matters in this life, rather it is how we finish and where we finish that counts.
Take your time, enjoy the journey. Learn what there is to be learned and move on when you are ready. This approach is not only productive, but far more enjoyable than rushing along and not stopping to ponder the prose.
From Little Things, Big Things Grow
Another important lesson about reading, particularly if you have never been an avid reader, is to do a little bit each day. Just ten pages from a book of choice and you will steadily make your way through. But always setting aside the task for when you have the time for a good long session, and chances are the world will keep on turning while your book’s pages remain unturned.
Reading is also like exercise. Stamina needs to be built and the minds ability to process and read for extended periods honed. So start small, read in short stints and steadily build up to hour and then day long sessions — if you are fortunate enough to have the time.
Cartwheeling Across The Room
The late Christopher Hitchens was reviewing a book for a magazine. During the course of the exercise, he became so frustrated with the work that he sent it cartwheeling across the room. I can well picture ‘Hitch’, cigarette languidly hanging from the corner of his mouth, hand clasped around a whisky glass, tossing the book toward the wastepaper bin, and then leaning back in his chair. Content in the knowledge he had repaid the reading in the only way fit.
It is apt for dispatching any work you read which would be felled by the blade of Hitchens’s razor: ‘what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.’
So never feel bad about quitting a poorly written book. Life is too short and you can never get the hour back you wasted ploughing through a piece which will yield neither entertainment nor truth.
At the outset, I observed Umberto Eco’s notion that no one writes in a vacuum. Sacrilegious though some may think it, ideas are seldom, if ever, channelled directly from God. Rather, they are supped from the global library of life. In this context it would be usual for an author to offer a list of further reading. Instead, I will offer the advice to read closer rather than further.
- Resist the tendency to follow clickbait. It is a time suck which could be better spent on good literature.
- Find a more meaningful way to consume news. The 24-hour news cycle regurgitates more often than it recapitulates. In that column inches and airtime must be filled, and audiences must be kept tuned in for the next commercial. Try the newswires instead, glean the key facts and resist mass churn articles by people who are not subject matter experts. Research the journalists, are they consistently producing quality work in their chosen subject space, or merely producing copy across anything and everything.
- When selecting a new piece to read, think about the compounding effect of consistent progress in a subject area and how compounding is amplified by a great author.
Good night, and good luck.