Advantageous Methods of Reading
Posted by Thomas Barnes
If you were to randomly take out books from your local library, finishing each of them one at a time, what sort of education would you obtain? Not a practical one, that’s for sure. Because even if we accept for the sake of argument that all knowledge is equal, still knowledge only gains utility once it passes a certain threshold of application. After all, you can spend a few months studying engineering and presumably you won’t have learned enough to engineer anything. Simply memorizing basic concepts and vocabulary won’t suffice. Techniques must be acquired and these through repeated problem solving until a technical skill set develops that doesn’t even require conscious recall. When a software coder codes, they don’t have to deliberate over how to input basic programming; this has changed into something entirely intuitive to them. And that’s all well and good but what relevance does it have for the average reader?
Trees of Knowledge
Quite a lot in fact. The reason being, every form of accumulation is subject to principles of efficiency. If I’m picking apples in an orchard, I don’t climb up one tree to grab my initial apple and then climb another to grab my second; I harvest the tree first entirely before I move on. And if I’m gathering enough apples I move from tree to tree in orderly sequences and not by randomized selection. However untechnical apple harvesting may be, one is still operating within the framework of minimum technique. So the importance of methodology is no less significant here because of the simplicity of the method. A player will lose just as surely at checkers as they will at chess if they have no strategic sense of their game. Likewise, as readers, a person does themselves a disservice if they remain utterly disorganized in their reading habits.
And this is as true for reading with the goal of informing oneself as it is for reading done solely in pleasure. Because regardless of individual preference, randomized books aren’t going to be the most satisfying. Let’s say you’re a fan of a specific genre of fiction. Murder mysteries perhaps. Even within these fairly narrow parameters, the amount of literature you have available to you is exponentially greater than anything you could digest in a single lifetime. Logically then, you owe it to yourself to figure out what it is you find most rewarding in these kinds of books and adjust your reading habits accordingly. Life is short enough and sufficiently rich in excellent writing that there’s no excuse for wasting any of your time here. A small increase in effort and reflection will pay enormous dividends.
"the amount of literature you have available to you is exponentially greater than anything you could digest in a single lifetime"
Finding the Way
But how to begin? While every category of literature will have its own unique elements, they also share a common structure at the most abstract level. Consider philosophy as a subject now. The important thing for anyone with a general interest in philosophy to do, is to define more or less what philosophy is. This can be as straightforward as looking up the word philosophy in the dictionary or as elaborate as researching several books and articles that discuss the idea of philosophy itself, its history, and the function that philosophy performs in society. However it’s done though, the philosophically inclined individual will attain their definition relatively soon. The next step then will be to identify if there are any subcategories of philosophy or notable philosophers that especially interest them. Depending on their personal tastes, these surveys might be contemporary or chronological but, in either case, the result will be to develop a practical reading list (or reading program if the individual chooses to be more systematic about it)
What it all comes down to is trying to instill within oneself an effective filter for sorting through the background noise across the sea of information. In a sense, every human being is a search engine, posing questions to themselves while they also simultaneously fine-tune their own private algorithms for finding answers. This attests to the fact that real learning is always transformative; that education will inevitably occur in parallel with personal growth. You can’t discover something new of any importance and not have it change you; how you think and what you believe are the basis of identity, the source of value creation among other things, and the indicators which will best predict your response to new information. Which again highlights the importance of having an organized approach to reading generally. Otherwise you’re going to be a passive recipient beholden to the prevailing currents of the media and information; a leaf adrift in the wind. Someone swayed as easily by a breeze as a tornado. Or any hot air for that matter.
A Legacy of Enlightenment
The clockwork sage of Konigsberg, the famous and infamous Immanuel Kant, urged everyone to think for themselves. “Dare to know,” he said. Meaning not simply that we should use our own reason, but also that we should thoughtfully consider the merits of the authorities available to us and ponder in all seriousness their respective merits. Which is not just true for the weightier matters of morals and government either but equally applies to more casual issues. A book series for example can be heavily promoted by a major publishing company far in excess of its intrinsic merits and here the public is prudent to make use of professional reviewers they trust, and rating sites, in order to question such advertising. Until recently that’s what the modern trend in history has all been about; humanity finally emancipating itself from the tendency to believe whatever it’s taught and to rely on its own powers of understanding. Which doesn’t just include knowledge; this also encompasses every form of style and taste.
A healthy society is one that facilitates the freedom of its members and their ambitions for self-improvement. Obviously literacy will be essential to this. And by literacy what is meant now is not merely the ability to read the written language but a more general literacy that allows one to truly navigate the media landscape. Authentic methods of reading then, ones that increase our own comprehension in the broadest sense of the word, will improve us in our critical faculties, and improve these in turn, meaning our intelligence has the potential for a limitless refinement that we can each initiate on our own. Of course this doesn’t invalidate the worth of an institutional education; rather it recognizes the essence of its virtues. That education has value precisely to the degree that it fosters independence. Which speaks to the huge advantage of the power to read ever since its dim origin in ancient times; no longer were people captive to the whims of an oral historian or the physical limitations of having to interact with one. The written word liberated knowledge as a thing in itself. Elevating it into a commonwealth.
Reading is necessary for personal betterment. Reading is also one of the simplest and most rewarding joys. And because of both these facts, it is in everyone’s interest to take reading seriously, putting thought into how they do so. But that shouldn’t lead us to the conclusion that all of our reading must be done in a premeditated way. To the contrary, it’s always beneficial to supplement a very organized approach with some browsing and leisurely sessions of curiosity. Doing so will increase our chances of stumbling upon something entirely unexpected, something that could radically alter our perceptions. The goal here then is to find a balance. And to refresh our appetite for discovery. That’s when we’re going to get the most out of life after all. Read widely then and read in such a way that you’re constantly able to surprise yourself. Read to feel alive.
About the Author:
Thomas Barnes is a freelance writer who has worked in many different industries; everything from video games to cosmetics. He's currently balancing his time between personal projects and producing online content for others.
Image credits: 1. Cottonbro at Pexels 2. Freepik 3. Rawpixel 4. Public Domain