Chapter 16 – How to Read History (part 3 of 3)


We have said that our exposition of the art of analytical reading applies to everything you have to read, not just to books. Now we want to qualify that statement a little. Analytical reading is not always necessary. There are many things that we read that o not require the kind of effort and skill that is called for at this third level of reading ability. Nevertheless, although the rules of reading do not all always have to be applied the four questions must always be asked of anything you read. That means, of course, that they must be asked when you are faced with the kind of things to which most of us devote much of our reading time: newspapers, magazines, books about current events, and the like.

The problem comes down to knowing what is actually happening now. We have chosen the word “actually” in the last sentence intentionally. … How do we get the new, and how do we know what we get is true?

Thus the most important thing to know, when reading any report of current happenings, is who is writing the report. What is involved here is not so much an acquaintance with the reporter himself as with the kind of mind he has. The various sorts of filter-reporters fall into groups. To understand what kind of filter our reporter’s mind is, we must ask a series of questions about it. This amounts to asking a series of questions about any material dealing with current events. The questions are these:

  1. What does the author want to prove?
  2. Whom does he want to convince?
  3. What special knowledge does he assume?
  4. What special language does he use?
  5. Does he really know what he is talking about?

For the most part it is safe to assume that all current events books want to prove something. Often it is easy enough to discover what this is. The blurb often sates the main contention or thesis of such books. If it does not appear there, it may be stated by the author in a preface.

Having asked what the book is trying to prove, you should next ask whom the author is trying to convince. Is the book intended for those “in the know” – and are you in that category? Is it for that small group of persons who can do something, and quickly, about the situation the author describes? Or is it for everyone? If you do not belong to the audience for which the book is intended, you may not want to read it.

You must next discover what special knowledge the author assumes that you have. The word “knowledge” is intended here to cover a lot of ground. “Opinion” or “prejudice” might have been a better choice. Many authors write only for readers who agree with them. If you disagree sharply with a reporter’s assumptions, you may only be irritated if you try to read his book.

Next, you must ask if there is a special language that the author uses. This is particularly important in reading magazines and newspapers, but it also applies to all books about current history. Certain words provoke from other readers a century hence. An example of such a word is “Communism” or “Communist.” We should try to control these responses, or at least know when they occur.

Finally, you must consider the last of the five questions, which is probably the hardest to answer. Does the reporter whose work you are reading himself know the facts? Is he privy to the perhaps secret thoughts and decisions of the persons about whom he is writing? Does he know all that he should know in order to give a fair and balanced account of the situation?

With the best good will in the world, with every intention of providing us with the truth of the matter, a reporter may still be “uninformed” with regard to secret actions, treaties, ans so forth. He himself may be aware of this, or he may not. In the latter case, of course, the situation is especially perilous for his reader.

You will not that these five questions are really only variations on the questions we have said you must ask of any expository book. Knowing an author’s special language, for example, is nothing more than coming to terms with him. But because current books and other material about the contemporary world pose special problems for us as readers, we have stated the questions in a different way.

Perhaps it is most useful to sum up the difference in a warning rather than a set of rules for reading books of this kind. The warning is this: Caveat Lector – “Let the reader beware.” … The author of any contemporary book may have – though he does not necessarily have – an interest in your understanding it in a certain way. Or if he does not, the sources of his information may have such an interest. You should know that interest, and take it into account in whatever you read.

            A NOTE ON DIGESTS

There is another consequence of our basic distinction – the distinction between reading for information and reading for understanding – that underlies everything we have said about reading. And this is that sometimes we have to read for information about understanding – to find out how others have interpreted the facts. Let us try to explain what this means.

The news magazines, for instance, such as Time and Newsweek, perform an invaluable function for most of us by reading the news and reducing it to its essential elements of information. The men who write these magazines are primarily readers. They have developed the art of reading for information to a point far beyond the average reader’s competence.

The skill that produces Reader’s Digest and the scores of similar periodicals is, first of all, a skill in reading, and only then one of writing simply and clearly. It does for us what few of us have the technique – even if we had the time – to do for ourselves. It cuts the core of solid information out of pages and pages of less substantial stuff.

But, after all, we still have to read the periodicals that accomplish these digests of current news and information. If we wish to be informed, we cannot avoid the task of reading, no matter how good the digests are. And the task of reading them is, in the last analysis, the same task as that which is performed by the editors of these magazines on the original material that they make available in more compact form. They have saved us labor, so far as the extent of our reading is concerned, but they have not saved us and cannot entirely save us the trouble of reading. In a sense, the function they perform profits us only if we can read their digests of information as well as they have done the prior reading in order to give us the digests.

And that involves reading for understanding as well as information. … the question of what has been left out becomes critical. Hence the greater the condensation, the more important it is that we know something of the character of the condenser; the same caveat we mentioned before applies here with even greater force. Ultimately, perhaps, this comes down to reading between the lines of an expert condensation. You cannot refer to the original to found out what was left out; you must somehow infer this from the condensation itself. Reading digests, therefore, is sometimes the most demanding and difficult reading that you can do.