The Activity and Art of Reading…and Reflections on Thinking

I think one of my most useful purchases as an adult with a yearning for knowledge, has been the classic book “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren.  After graduating college I began to realize that much of my reading had become about information-gathering, as opposed to interaction with the author/s.  This coincided with a time in my life where I began to grow more and more aware of people’s acceptance as facts whatever they happened to gaze at in a newspaper, magazine, or book.  That wasn’t the most bothersome thing, though.  The most bothersome thing was that I came to realize that I did it too.  All the time.

It was a decidedly difficult thing to diagnose, because I found that I truly believed that I read everything critically.  This would account for my being able to point out the flaws in every argument that was opposed to me, and recognize every strength of those arguments I resonated with.  Get me in a room with an opponent and I could usually remember all of the arguments I liked!

I’m going to have a bit of fun in this next paragraph.  Bear with me.  It actually is true.

The problem of diagnosis, I came to discover, was due to the fact that I hardly ever actually thought about what I read.  I believed that by reading I was thinking…but really, I was just thinking what I was reading.  Or in the case of a disagreement, I was thinking what I wasn’t reading.  It all sounds so very convoluted, but I discovered that I only thought that I thought well.  In reality, what I thought I had thought well really wasn’t a real thought at all!  Rather, all of the thoughts I thought I thought were just someone else’s thoughts!  I had repackaged them into my own words and added my own personal experience, but they weren’t anything close to interactions with the author.  Instead, they were either flat rejections or acceptance of the author’s arguments.

Reading this book helped me to realize that I’m part of a generation where all of our thinking is done for us.  If we have a question, we check out the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Daily Beast, Huffington Post, Slate, Townhall, Michelle Malkin, Fox News, MSNBC, Current, Redstate, Time, or CNN.  They provide the answers.  Then, we jump on the comment section and throw grenades at the article or the opponents of it.  We even do it on  We push others who disagree with us to “interact critically” by posting an article we like (although to be fair, most make it clear that articles they post are things they endorse, and does not mean they have not critically interacted with them in some way).

All this to say, this is an important book, and I’m shocked and saddened that it wasn’t required reading for me in high school (all four years), and college (all four years).  Regardless, it should be required reading for adulthood, anyway.  Here is an excerpt from the first chapter.

This is a book for readers and for those who wish to become readers.  Particularly, it is for readers of books.  Even more particularly, it is for those whose main purpose in reading books is to gain increased understanding.

By “readers” we mean people who are still accustomed, as almost every literate and intelligent person used to be, to gain a large share of their information about and their understanding of the world from the written word.  Not all of it, of course; even in the days of radio and television, a certain amount of information and understanding was acquired through spoken words and through observation.  But for intelligent and curious people that was never enough.  They knew they had to read too, and they did read.

There is some feeling nowadays that reading is not as necessary as it once was.  Radio and especially television have taken over many of the functions once served by print, just as photography has taken over functions once served by painting and other graphic arts.  Admittedly, television serves some of these functions extremely well; the visual communication of news events, for example, has enormous impact.  The ability of radio to give us information while we are engaged in doing other things–for instance, driving a car–is remarkable, and a great saving of time.  But it may be seriously questioned whether the advent of modern communications media has much enhanced our understanding of the world in which we live.

Perhaps we know more about the world than we used to, and insofar as knowledge is prerequisite to understanding, that is all to the good.  But knowledge is not as much a prerequisite to understanding as is commonly supposed.  We do not have to know everything about something in order to understand it; too many facts are often as much of an obstacle to understanding as too few.  There is a sense in which we moderns are inundated with facts to the detriment of understanding.

One of the reasons for this situation is that the very media we have mentioned are so designed as to make thinking seem unnecessary (though this is only an appearance).  THe packaging of intellectual positions and views is one of the most active enterprises of some of the best minds of our day.  The viewer of television, the listener of radio, the reader of magazines, is presented with a whole complex of elements–all the way from ingenious rhetoric to carefully selected data and statistics–to make it easy for him to “make up his own mind” with the minimum difficulty and effort.  But the packaging is often done so effectively that the viewer, listener, or reader does not make up his own mind at all.  Instead, he inserts a packaged opinion into his mind, somewhat like inserting a cassette into a cassette player.  He then pushes a button and “plays back” the opinion whenever it seems appropriate to do so.  He has performed acceptably without having to think.

You can find this book here.

God has given us minds with which to think, let us be good stewards of them.

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One thought on “The Activity and Art of Reading…and Reflections on Thinking

  1. Chris Gehrz says:

    Seth – If you enjoyed Adler/Van Doren, be sure to read “The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction” by Alan Jacobs (Wheaton, soon to move to Baylor):

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