Applicational reading (and when not to read)

Posted August 16th, 2010 and filed in Books, Education, Human Mind

If one cannot think well, then one cannot read well. This explains why so many well-read people get no wisdom out of their reading. The quantity of books read and the number of degrees attained do not count. It is better to read fewer books well. It is better to be less educated but equipped with a few well-digested fundamental truths verified by experience. A grasp of the natural laws is much more important than “the wordy ignorance that is often called knowledge” (George Eliot: Middlemarch, Lydgate’s moment of vocation), much more important than cunning and so-called worldly wisdom.

Preferably, thinking should precede reading. Only when the questions have been generated and have been boiling in the mind can learning happen. For a person whose brain has never exercised the thinking process on real problems encountered, whose heart cares about nothing and nobody, books can add no value. If a book does not address your own set of puzzles and dilemmas, pains and longings, I say drop it. You can always come back to it when you have thought about the questions it addresses. Then it will speak to you, if it is a great book. You can critique it, absorb the nutrition you need, and obtain the vocabulary to express your thoughts.

I often think about how wise it was of Hermann Hesse to call the contemporary academic enterprise “the Glass Bead Game,” one that is intellectually satisfying  but has nothing to do with the creative force. Such endeavor centers on the interpretation, study, research, and the manipulation of the intricate structure of its subjects, yet exists only in the ashes of past great creation. The vigor is wasted on argument instead of advancement, on trivial details instead of significance.

Mortimer Adler, in his bestseller How to Read a Book, proposes four levels of reading: elementary, inspectional, analytical, and the highest: syntopical. I’d like to propose yet another, even higher level: applicational reading. By this I mean that you apply what you are reading to at least one troubling case currently in your life. Thus, you follow the author through his discourse, all the while critically relating the content to your situation, smiling or frowning, nodding or shaking your head, hesitating, questioning, conversing, and debating. If you cannot do this, you should put aside this book, at least for now. Or, if it belongs to the Great Books list, give it a quick once-over at best.

When there is nothing that appeals to a person below the head, no change will happen. In this case, do not read; instead, live. Go out into the world, experience nature and people. Your real university lies there. This is what Gorky calls his university in his autobiography. All learning should be visceral. I disagree with the academics. I disagree with the dispassionate and indifferent.