Reading is a two-way street. Many of us think that, as compared to writing and speaking which are active undertakings, reading and listening are entirely passive. One is the sender of information, the other the receiver. The mistake here is that both need to be active. Take this analogy from “How To Read A Book” by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren:
Catching the ball is just as much an activity as pitching or hitting it. The pitcher of a batter is the sender in the sense that his activity initiates the motion of the ball. The catcher or fielder is the receiver in the sense that his activity terminates it. Both are active, though the activities are different. If anything is passive, it is the ball. It is the inert thing that is put in motion or stopped, whereas the players are active, moving to pitch, hit, or catch. The analogy with writing and reading is almost perfect. The thing that is written and read, like the ball, is the passive object common to the two activities that begin and terminate the process.
Reading allows us to speak less and listen more. This does not mean we have to absorb all information as gospel. Active listening and reading is the gateway to better understanding – from understanding less to understanding more. Once we understand, then we can agree or disagree. We cannot have an opinion on a matter in which you do not understand. “I do not understand but I disagree”.
How often do we formulate an opinion without truly understanding? How often do we interject a person speaking by subconsciously formulating a stance on the matter?
Many of our issues with others, be it about politics, religion, school, work, relationships, are from a lack of understanding. A useful tool that can be applied is reframing what was stated in order to solidify comprehension. Thereafter, you can state your position so all parties involved are not caught in a perpetual “that is irrelevant/that is not what I said/that is not what I meant” loop.
“The activity of reading does not stop with the work of understanding what a book says. It must be completed by the work of criticism, the work of judging. The undemanding reader fails to satisfy this requirement, probably even more than he fails to analyze and interpret. He not only makes no effort to understand; he also dismisses a book simply by putting it aside and forgetting it. Worse than faintly praising it, he damns it by giving it no critical consideration whatever.”
We tend to forget or neglect the fact that our brains are like any muscle in our bodies. One must constantly stress the brain in order for it to grow. This is a lifelong workout. We cannot stop and expect it to stay the same. Although it may be extreme, I like to believe my brain will atrophy if it is not growing. The only divergence in this analogy is unlike our bodies, the mind can continue to grow as we continue to live.
In order to grow, you cannot just read any book. If all you read are books that are within your intelligence, you cannot expect that your mind will be stretched. You must take on books that are beyond you. Unless your brain hurts, you will not learn. It is worse to be literate and not to read than to be illiterate. The latter has an excuse that you do not.
“….a good book can teach you about the world and about yourself. You learn more than how to read better; you also learn more about life. You become wiser. Not just more knowledgeable – books that provide nothing but information can produce that result. But wiser, in the sense that you are more deeply aware of the great and enduring truths of human life.”
Fire had a profound impact on human civilization. Language can be argued to have had the same impact fire had. Language allowed the best epiphanies to transverse generations and time. Through word of mouth communication, humans were able to form a collective knowledge bank. Every new generation had profound insights that were passed on in order to avoid making the same mistakes others have made for them.
What followed was the ability to write. Writing lets thoughts stick onto a physical object where it could live forever. The cumulative knowledge built could now be stored into physical books where one can reference at any time. One cannot express a huge depth of knowledge through word of mouth as one could compressing it into a physical form. It allowed humans to dive in any field and immerse ourselves despite the knowledgeable not being within traveling distance of our location.
Reading closes this loop. It allows us to obtain the knowledge of previous generations and build upon it. It allows us to travel while staying in place. Think of reading as working on a team. The collective is more powerful than the individual. Two plus two equals more than four. Our duty is to continue to build this collective knowledge.
Read. Analyze. Understand. Critique. Build. Repeat.