Friday, January 6, 2012

Some Thoughts About Reading

Citizens read. The sort of informed civil discourse that lies at the heart of a vital public realm in a constitutional democracy depends upon citizens engaging with their social world, and their own past and present. Such engagement requires knowledge of basic facts (not just opinions) about that world. It also requires a practiced ability to reflect upon these materials and to evaluate, assess, think about, and confront alternative interpretations of the the meaning of the facts. Reading is not the only way in which this sort of citizenship can be developed, but it is a valuable and highly effective way that should be encouraged by any nation serious about being a constitutional democracy.

In fact, I think it is fair to say that the person who does not read, and read actively, suffers from a dangerous sort of shallowness -- a shallowness that, if too common among the citizenry, jeopardizes the ongoing project of constitutionalism. That is why proponents of constitutional government have long argued for the importance of reading, why they have called for universal education, why they have insisted on measuring schools by their success at developing reading skills in their pupils.In the heyday of education for citizenship (sadly, a time in which we no longer live) the ability to read and absorb was seen as the fundamental educational goal. And in those days students were pushed to read and wrestle with a wide variety of challenging texts -- texts that to a great extent have disappeared from the elementary, secondary, and even college curriculum, to the detriment of thoughtfulness in the public realm.

Of course, she who reads, even if she reads regularly, does not do so solely (or even primarily) because doing so fosters a more reflective and deliberative public sphere. That sort of idealism formed the target of many of the Founders, who realized that viable polities can only be fashioned if people are taken as they really are. People as they really are do not obsess about the common good and generally do not act with the commonwealth in mind. Real people are selfish, self-interested, concerned about their families and friends, and maybe their local communities and associations. Real people by and large do not read because it makes them better citizens.

Rather, we must accept the fact that most people read for entertainment, for relaxation, for something to do in front of the fire or on the beach or on the plane. These purposes should not be scoffed at: in our fast-paced, over-stimulated (and over-stimulating) society, where voices crash down on the individual from all angles, usually at great volume, people need a quiet place, shelter from the storm of everyday life, and reading can provide that. For that reason, entertainment/relaxation reading is valuable and healthy. So we should never criticize those who while away the hours reading spy novels or detective stories, for doing so refreshes and helps prepare the reader to for the next hour or the next day.

Of course, people read for a wide range of practical, instrumental reasons. Some people read to improve themselves, or improve their business or communicative abilities, or to learn new ways to make money or influence people. Some people -- lawyers and other business people come to mind -- read documents, contracts, and other copy for a living. Doctors read the latest drug studies, materials for conferences on the latest techniques, patient records. Many read EULAs (or, more likely, parts of them), bits and pieces from the Internet, instruction manuals for new appliances or gadgets, and much more. Some people read for information or instruction in practical activities, as many read the newspaper, political e-zines, encyclopedia, or cookbooks. These, of course, are useful things to do, and so reading how to do them is useful as well. For many of us -- this is especially true of we professionals -- our day is filled with reading. This sort of reading is essential to our lives as we've chosen to live them. And sometimes this sort of reading causes us to reflect on what we are doing (or about to do), and to that extent it can accustom us to the reflection that characterizes good citizenship.

Reading can take another form, one even more closely tied to the requirements of good citizenship, though ironically this sort of reading has no immediate practical application (not even relaxation -- in fact, it is as likely to be stressful as to be relaxing). This kind of reading characterizes the thinker: the person who examines what she does and what she confronts in the world, the person who lives the examined life. Though it is not undertaken with this end in mind, this sort of reading can nurture the kind of thinking life praised by Socrates, Emerson, Arendt, and many others -- the sort of examined life that good citizens live, and bad citizens (Arendt's Eichmann, for instance) shun. In this sense, reading of this sort resembles liberal education, which is valuable in itself as a part of a human life lived to the fullest rather than because of any practical end it might serve.

Emerson, who read widely and encouraged others to do so as well, nevertheless insisted that one should avoid being too heavily influenced by what one reads. As he put it, we must "learn to divine books, to feel those that you want without wasting much time on them." Emerson encouraged readers to browse, to skip around, to hunt for those passages that speak to them: "The glance reveals what the gaze obscures. Somewhere the author has hidden his message. Find it, and skip the paragraphs that do not talk to you." "Learn how to tell from the beginnings of the chapters and from glimpses of the sentences whether you need   to read them entirely through," he tells us. "So turn page after page, keeping the writer's thoughts before you, but not tarrying with him, until he has brought you the thing you are in search of."

That means that one reads to discover and grab hold of those things one can use. One reads for stimulation, not necessarily visceral excitement, but for sparks that ignite one's own reasoning. One reads to nourish one's own thought. Emerson went so far as to suggest that reading for any other end is to waste one's time. I think he's wrong about that, as I've tried to indicate above. But his larger point, that one should avoid becoming so engrossed in what is being read, so carried away on the breeze of the author's language, that you stop thinking, is exactly right. "Reading long at one time anything, no matter how it fascinates, destroys thought."

Hence, one should not read anything as if it were divine writ; rather, one should read to appropriate, to find threads to weave into what one is already thinking. This does not mean that one only reads to reinforce one's pre-existing prejudices, as many read certain blogs or websites to reconfirm their political views. Rather, reading by appropriating is an active, interactive, dialectical process in which one collects materials that can be combined in new, creative ways as one reflects. This sort of reading entails engagement with the text, interaction with it, wrestling with it, grabbing bits of it that attract one's attention, confirm a trend one's mind is already following, or force one to reconsider one's existing views. Reading of this sort compels growth and change; it compels struggle with new views by seeing how they affect one's old views. It feeds thought; it prompts the creative definition and ongoing redefinition of what one thinks. And it inevitably means that as one reads one skips or lightly brushes over large swaths of text that do not fire one's own thinking or speak to one's developing ideas. One must have the courage to resist, to refuse anything that is not one's own material.

Notice how this differs from the approach to reading we generally take when we read for practical purposes. There one reads and accepts. One does not reflect upon the directions for the coffee maker, let alone take pieces of those directions and weave them into the rules of civil procedure. More importantly, Emerson's approach to reading differs markedly from that frequently recommended to and followed by students, scholars, and other intellectuals. Consider, for instance, the once-well-known approach to reading outlined by Mortimer Adler in his classic How to Read a Book. Adler suggested correctly that some books are not worth  spending much time with and that readers need to learn how to distinguish books that can be read quickly from those that require considerably more time. (One of my graduate professors spoke to this point when he told me I needed to learn how to read a book in fifteen minutes.) So far, so good. But for those books that deserve sustained attention, Adler recommends that after skipping around and getting the flavor of the book, the reader must dig into its inner structure, consuming hours and days recreating the argument of each paragraph, each chapter, and the book as a whole. Adler, of course, was a believer in the "Great Books," that canonical list of books "gentlemen" need to be familiar with, a list that formed the basis of a cabined sort of liberal education, defined by fellow Chicago School intellectual Leo Strauss as a conversation with the great authors in pursuit of the truth. And so Adler's reading method would compel the reader to take many hours working laboriously through the argument in Plato's Republic, Aquinas's Summa Theologica, or any other tome on the canonical list. The Truth, in the Adler-Strauss view, lies inside these books, waiting to be unearthed through arduous labor by the careful reader.

Not so for Emerson, for whom the truth (to the extent there is such a thing -- a larger subject we cannot broach here) lies within the individual, not in the pages of a dusty volume on the Great Books shelf. If the truth lies in here rather than out there, inside oneself rather than on the pages of someone else's book, the whole point of reading is changed. As Emerson put it, "you only read to start your own team." That is, you read to trigger your own thinking. The aim is not to grasp in depth the thoughts of another, except to the extent that doing so helps inspire your own. You read not to master what Emerson elsewhere calls "books written by the dead for the dead," but to enliven one's own train of thoughts.

Of course we don't teach this sort of reading to our fellow citizens. That is unfortunate for reading this way spawns exactly the sort of thinking we should want (most of) our fellow citizens to be capable of and practiced in. In fact, we seldom ask pupils (at any level) to read in this manner, or to read the books that have their most powerful impact when read this way. It is sad to see how few professionals -- the class of people once considered the best and brightest of the liberally educated -- read in this manner or read these books. Once again we see the deeper failure of education in our society. But schools for generations now have been aimed at practical ends -- particularly preparing students for the work world -- and, as indicated above, Emersonian reading (the sort of reading inspired by a truly liberal education) has no immediate practical benefit. It may, indeed, ill equip someone to passively take his or her place in the economy for it fosters thoughtfulness, critical analysis, engaged examination of what is and what could be -- none of these traits particularly desirable for subjects of powerful structures, from governments to corporations.

1 comment:

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