The Best Way To Read

Oliver Burkeman has written the latest essay on the topic of “How To Find Time To Read.” At the end of his first paragraph, he quotes writer Tim Parks, who says, correctly, in my opinion, “Every moment of serious reading has to planned for, fought for”–which is precisely why we ought to do less reading than we do.

This is a radical suggestion in 2015, to be sure, but it is time to make it. As Parks observes, “the mind, or at least my mind, is overwhelmingly inclined toward communication or, if that is too grand a word, to the back and forth of contact with others.”

It is too grand a word. The contemporary mind is overwhelmingly inclined toward response to the social stimuli of Twitter, Facebook, Skype, and the rest. That is what those mediums have trained us to do. Aside from an occasional witty bon mot someone might toss our way on Twitter, no one of us is actually communicating anything of value when we send out a “message”: our thoughts, whatever they are, are incomplete. We reduce, we truncate, we oversimplify. All we do is respond, sending out a sharp tap on our collective knee to test the reflex response of cyberspace.

I am saddened to have to make this claim, because I actually believe in the power of response. The idea of “response” is at the heart of one of the wisest books I’ve ever read, Rabbi Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen To Good People. Before Kushner came along, the common wisdom about how to help people who were grieving or otherwise in trouble in their lives was that you had to solve their problems for them; you had to do something. Kushner said no. What the grieving mind needs is not solutions, he said, but response, and he cites as support the ancient scene of Job’s true friends, those who come to him in his hour of need, who say nothing, but who sit with him and wait upon him as he grieves his many losses.

That is the efficacy of response, but as Kushner and the Jewish scriptures conceive it, there’s a physical dimension implied in the response: the actual presence of Job’s friends; Job’s voice as he cries out against his pain; and the atmosphere around them all, bereft as they are of wives, children, land, and home.

We convey no such dimension ourselves in a Tweet or a Facebook posting. Oh, we post thousands of pictures, which do help occasionally to convey a deeper sense of a moment–but only if you happened to be one of those in the moment in the first place. For the rest of us, the picture is what it is–an instant frozen in time, shorn of the context that would give it meaning, hence the need for captions, the written word, underneath even the most striking of photographs.

Response, then, as we think of it now in the contemporary world, is inadequate for genuine communication; but here we are, all of us, besieged daily with requests to respond to stimuli: e-mails, notifications, tweets, instant messages. Each of these stimuli has a potentially positive role to play in our daily lives. We can say “thank you” if someone appreciates what we’ve written or posted online. Our chain of e-mail is often essential for the conduct of business. But in the face of all the demands upon our time, what do we do when we actually want to say something? What do we do when we want to read? What do we do when we want to learn?

The only answer I’ve come up with, and I offer it reluctantly yet hopefully, is to read less. Jack Dorsey of Twitter may be pleased that we all now respond like Pavlov’s dogs to every invitation that’s dropped into our Inbox, but we are better than those dogs, and we certainly have better things to do with our time. Burkeman and Parks are both correct: the reading world of today is vastly different from what it was fifty or even thirty years ago. I know this; I was there, reading, in both periods. In 1985, I was reading all those wonderful but dense Victorian novels to which Parks refers and reminding myself that their length was often a function of their serialization for a public whose primary source of at-home entertainment was reading. In my own life and times, cable TV began in the 1970s as a way of providing television service to hard-to-reach rural areas. Even by 1985, it had not yet become a country-wide entertainment source. ESPN had only been around six years, and I couldn’t afford it, thank God.

So even thirty years ago, I had time available to read that many present-day readers feel they don’t have. How do we find the time in 2015 to read? We cut out those things we do not need, and we focus on the things we do. Most of us do not need to watch endless re-runs of The Big Bang Theory on TBS or Castle on TNT. They are fine shows, but the time we’ve spent with them can be put to better use. Truthfully, there’s not a soul on this planet that needs to read Books Here And There, and I’d be perfectly happy writing only for myself if I knew that my former readers were off reading something worthwhile instead.

My second suggestion is to revise our idea of what worthwhile reading is. Take, for example, my recent link to The Oyster Review‘s list of the best books thus far this decade. We are not, any one of us, under any obligation to read every book on that list. We can pick and choose. All of us have read so much that we’ve earned that right. The books we leave behind may be a source of regret later, but maybe not; there might be time to read one or two of them after we’ve read what we consider essential. We cannot be afraid to choose, and we shouldn’t be afraid. Natural selection works upon life itself; we’ve imposed artificial selection ourselves for pleasure and profit upon hundreds of plant and animal species; there remains such a thing as intellectual selection, also. Don’t be afraid to exercise it.

My third suggestion will be controversial to many, but all of us have practiced variations upon it for years, anyway, so I’m not afraid to suggest it: as we read more selectively, we must learn to read more carefully. President Lincoln did this. He read comparatively little in his life, but what he read, he read carefully, and always with an eye upon how he could turn what he read to good use. No better example of this can be found than in the movie Lincoln, when the President, talking with his subordinates late in our Civil War, reflects upon what he learned from Euclid: “Things which are equal to the same things are equal to each other. That’s a rule of mathematical reasoning and its true because it works – has done and always will do. In his book Euclid says this is self evident. You see there it is even in that 2000 year old book of mechanical law it is the self evident truth that things which are equal to the same things are equal to each other.”

One of the very best aids I’ve found in learning to read more carefully is Mortimer Adler’s How To Read A Book. Adler will teach you how to break a book or an essay down into its constituent parts, how to ask questions of both the book and of yourself, and how to fit that book into the context of your wider reading. He deals with fiction, but his approach is most helpful with non-fiction. It will take you time to master the techniques he offers, and many readers will resist those techniques because they do take time to learn. But the bedrock principle underlying both Lincoln’s view and Adler’s view of reading is sound: if we read fewer works but read well those that we do read, our pleasure and our knowledge is likely to increase. The books we truly read will become more fully a part of us, and we will discover that what we think is new or fresh or essential in the present day and demands our attention right now is actually something that has already been better said by someone else years before, and we can set the work aside and move on to something else we’d rather read.

To be a better reader is to be many other things, too: a better thinker, a better listener, a better judge, a better selector. Becoming that kind of reader is never easy, but the task can be made both easier and more fun if we put away the things we do not need and turn our attention instead toward the things we do need.

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2 thoughts on “The Best Way To Read

  1. So many interesting and cogent points here! I agree with you, but I think there are a couple of different kinds of reading–or maybe a couple of different goals in reading… and one is entertainment, which I think is OK! So to have a book going just for fun, and to have a slower, more serious read at the same time… that might be a path, too. (I am not a BIg Bang Theory snob–there are a lot of the old episodes viewed and appreciated in my household. But I do think reading a mystery or a light novel or short story might be a better way to spend time…)

    Your post made me think of an article I read recently on the dangers of texting and driving; the writer maintains that we are hard-wired to respond to the ringtone of our phones–part of the fight or flight response, somehow. I think social media–and our phones–draw on a deeply seated need to respond. We need to make sure we physically separate from our electronics to have the time to sink into that deep reading mode.

    And finally, I can’t think it will be necessarily for your readers to stop following your blog in order to carve out reading time! I enjoy your posts, which are thoughtful, well-balanced, and often lead me to the kind of reading you write about here!

  2. Pam, thank you for your kind words and thoughtful reply. I believe we do have, as a species, a deep-seated need to respond to our fellow humans. I’m just not sure that the modern ways we’ve developed are as great as many have said they are. I love *The Big Bang Theory* and deeply respect what they do. The episodes are funny every week, and we all need to laugh. And I never miss *Game Of Thrones* or *Mad Men*. It’s just that the culture of choice that we’ve created for ourselves demands that we. . . well, make choices; and I find that I have to give up some things in order to do other worthwhile things.

    Mortimer Adler was essentially a classicist and a philosopher. He was not always serious, although he came across that way in his books. He was a *serious* reader, though, and he loved (that is, found joy in) thinking, just as Carl Sagan did. The reactions to *How To Read A Book* are often colored by our reactions to the *Great Books of the Western World* (those books are either essential to us or a collection of what Dead White European Males think about all we have created). Nonetheless, I still think *How To Read A Book* is *very* useful in tackling a given “difficult” work, and showing why it is worthwhile.

    Yet you are certainly correct: we need light reading and so-called “middling” works to round out our life experience. The light books often have a turn of phrase or a passage that makes a point more vividly than many a masterwork. I read science fiction most often for fun and a change-of-pace.

    Thanks again for taking the time to write.

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