Updated: Oct 14
There are innumerable works covering the vastness of human activities, so much so that we can become highly educated in nearly any area of human study through solitary learning. We are afforded the opportunity to read the thoughts of the great men of the past, and our world view and wealth of knowledge benefit from their influence. The multitudes of literature have left us wanting, however. We have enough great books to study for a lifetime, but no one taught us how to read. We can read in a very literal sense, making linguistic sense of symbols on the page to formulate a corresponding thought. Yes, we were taught to read, but no one taught us how to read books!
Bertrand Russell said, “There are two motives for reading a book; one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it.” The latter holds true for many, but I gather that our readers reside primarily in the former. I would like to extend this thought further.
I believe there are two noteworthy motives for reading a book, in as much as the reader either enjoys the practice in and of itself, or is searching for a better understanding of themselves or this world. Either for fun or learning, and these two often coincide.
I will devote the remainder of this writing to the latter, pursuit of education. The former requires little discussion, but is worth acknowledging that time spent in joy is never misguided, and purposelessness does play a meaningful role in the construction of happiness in our lives. In a world concerned primarily with the transactional nature of being reciprocated for our actions, it is good for the soul to experience play for the sole sake of play itself, without looking to “get anything” from it.
In regards to using reading as a means of education, there are clearly varying degrees of intention of the reader. Reading, despite popular belief, is not a passive past-time. If you are not reading with a pen and notebook handy, and writing in the margins to the point where you run out of room, highlighting and underlining, folding pages, etc., you are not reading. At least, not in the sense of procuring the most value from your efforts.
Below are the 5 key ingredients to reading well, and making the most of this sacred medium.
Above all else, when the aim of reading is to learn, we must make room for quiet. The mind must be given free-reign to meander through the work, and we must have our full faculties and complete attention devoted to its understanding. If there is a TV on in the background, or music with words (predominantly occupying the aspects of your mind associated with linguistics, hence robbing you of those resources to devote to the work), or in a busy social setting, it will be most difficult to gather any lasting interpretation of the work. We must create a place of solitude to allow for full immersion of the work. Create an island unto yourself as it were, and allow for true correspondence between yourself and the author. Only then can we hear their message.
2) Seek to understand the author
If we want to understand the ideas, it serves us well to understand their source. What were the governing factors in the life of the writer that brought them to this world view. Many of the great works were written in a time completely alien to ourselves, we must do our best to empathize with their situation in order to digest the wisdom the writer attempts to communicate. The best advice I have ever read concerning the best means of entertaining the writing of another comes by way of Bertrand Russell from his epic The History of Western Philosophy,
“In studying a philosopher, the right attitude is neither reverence nor contempt, but first a kind of hypothetical sympathy, until it is possible to know what it feels like to believe in his theories, and only then a revival of the critical attitude, which should resemble, as far as possible, the state of mind of a person abandoning opinions which he has hitherto held.”
Once we understand where the writer is, we can now hope to ascertain where he is going.
So we have made some quiet place to study, we have gotten to understand the perspective of the writer, now we get to the process of reading.
3) Understand the work
Marcus Aurelius, in Meditations, stressed the importance of not being satisfied with the superficial understanding of books. I concur whole-heartedly. It is not enough to read all the words of a book form front to back, we must have a deep sense of understanding as to their message. True reading is not a unending stream of digestion from the first word to the last. It is not smooth and flowing. True reading, especially the good books, is choppy, ugly and redundant. This may be excessive, but in reading the works of say a Spinoza or Russell, I may spend 10 minutes on a single sentence until I feel I have a true understanding of its usage. This is arduous and sometimes downright painful, but is necessary in our ultimately deriving wisdom from the knowledge we acquire.
If you are watching the clock as you read, or counting down pages to the end of the book, you are missing the point. What good is to simply fly through the book when you will simply begin another text as soon as you are done, and repeat this process ad infinitum. Real study, depending upon the book, often is Sisyphean in nature, but rewarding.
Last winter in central New Jersey we had a three-day snow-storm, and I spent most of those waking hours reading Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy. A short book , my version is only 113 pages, should have taken me no more than two hours or so had it been of a less-challenging nature. But I did not read it to simply finish it, or add it to the list, so I took my time in digesting each word. This resilience is of the utmost importance when studying the greater works of non-fiction. This was at times excruciating, but paramount in my understanding of such life-altering ideas.
4)Have a dictionary nearby
This is imperative. When reading challenging books, we often are reading the thoughts of a man or woman whose vocabulary far surpasses our own. We must be well-equipped to make up for this chasm of verbal proficiency. I always have a dictionary (or smart phone as of late, YOLO!) at my side, and whenever I come across a word that I cannot clearly and articulately define on my own, a underline it, look up the definition, and write it in the margin.
We cannot begin to understand the message if we cannot decipher the words. Especially among the most proficient of writers, each word is so perfectly crafted that often the synonyms do not truly suffice, and we recognize the purposeful choice of each individual word.
5) Take Notes
This is the final, and most important aspect of being an active reader that will lead to your growth as a person. We must have a pen on us at all times, and in fact I will not read a book without a pen handy, because this would be far too great a shortcoming of my practice to ever really make up.
I have a system in which I highlight my books, and I do this so I will have the ability to in the future reference that which I deem important. With our finite and busied lives, many of the books we read will only be read once, through highlighting we are afforded the opportunity to revisit a work in a far-less daunting manner, and see how our new found perspectives alter our favorite passages. Most of us have very limited recall, and even though we may agree with something we read entirely, we are extremely limited in our ability to remember it even minutes later.
By highlighting that which we deem worthy, we make permanent and accessible the ideas we value.
I have a very specific system with which I take notes, and the major tenets can be described briefly as such, in ascending importance:
[Brackets for something of note] Underline for something worth remembering *Stars bracketing the underline for a big idea* *! Stars with an !, and underlined, for something even more meaningful Folded corners of the pages for the greatest of these findings.
And finally, for ideas that I want to add to my world view, the real gold of a work, I fold the entire page in half. All the while writing in the margins whatever musings arise in the forefront of my consciousness. I often joke that when I am done reading a book, there is more of my writing in it than that of the author’s.
It is my belief that these five practices will allow the reader to truly derive lessons from a work, and use such a sacred medium for learning most efficiently.
To review, You are truly reading a book if:
1) You do so in a place of quiet contemplation. 2) You understand the perspective of the author. 3) You seek to truly understand the message. 4) You use a dictionary wherever needed. 5) You take copious notes.
This, at least in my own experience, has allowed me to truly engage with a work, and apply the best of its message efficiently and timely to my own life.
Echoing the words of Bertrand Russell concerning our desire to boast of a book read, I would suggest that real reading occurs when we are so enthralled with a book, that we devote a portion of our life to its study all the while being perfectly content to have no one aware of our having read it.
When we read for ourselves, and only ourselves, we are afforded the opportunity to have a meaningful relationship with the work and it’s wisdom. It is only then that we take that wisdom, and bring it forth into the world to benefit others.
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