Chapter 21 – Reading and Growth of the Mind

  1. READING AND GROWTH OF THE MIND

We have now completed the task that lay before us at the beginning of this book. We have shown that activity is the essence of good reading, and that the more active reading is, the better it is.

We have defined active reading as the asking of questions, and we have indicated what questions must be aske of any book, and how those questions must be answered in different ways for different kinds of books.

We have identified and discussed the four levels of reading, and shown how these are cumulative, earlier or lower levels being contained in later or higher ones. Consequent upon our stated intention, we have laid more stress upon the later and higher levels of reading than upon the earlier and lower ones, and we have therefore emphasized analytical and syntopical reading. Since analytical reading is probably the most unfamiliar kind for most readers, we have discussed it at greater length than any of the other levels, giving its rules and explaining them in the order in which they must be applied. But almost everything that was said of analytical reading also applies, with certain adaptations that were mentioned in the last chapter, to syntopical reading as well.

We have completed our task, but you may not have completed yours. We do not need to remind you that this is a practical book, nor that the reader of a practical book has a special obligation with respect to it. If, we said, the reader of a practical book accepts the ends it proposes and agrees that the means recommended are appropriate and effective, then he must act in the way proposed. You may not accept the primary aim we have endorsed – namely, that you should be able to read as well as possible – nor the means we have proposed to reach it – namely, the rules of inspectional, analytical, and syntopical reading. (In that case, however, you are not likely to be reading this page.) But if you do accept that aim and agree that the means are appropriate, then you must make the effort to read as you probably have never read before.

WHAT GOOD BOOKS CAN DO FOR US

If you are reading in order to become a better reader, you cannot read just any book or article. You will not improve as a reader if all you read are books that are well within your capacity. You must tackle books that are beyond you. … Only books of that sort will make you stretch your mind. And unless you stretch, you will not learn.

A Book that can do no more than amuse or entertain you may be a pleasant diversion for an idle hour, but you must not expect to get anything but amusement from it. We are not against amusement in its own right, but we do want to stress that improvement in reading skill does not accompany it. That same goes for a book that merely informs you of facts that you did not know without adding to your understanding of those facts. Reading for information does not stretch your mind any more than reading for amusement. It may seem as though it does, but that is merely because your mind is fuller of facts than it was before you read the book. However, your mind is essentially in the same condition that it was before. There has been a quantitative change, but no improvement in your skill.

We have already remarked that the great scientific books are in many ways easier to read than non-scientific ones, because of the care with which scientific authors help you to come to terms, identify the key propositions, and state the main arguments. These helps are absent from poetical works, and so in the long run they are quite likely to be the hardest, and most demanding, books that you can read.

The difficulties that we are talking about here are very different from the difficulties that are presented by a bad book. It is hard to read a bad book, too, for it defies your efforts to analyze it, slipping through your fingers whenever you think you have it pinned down. In fact, in the case of a bad book, there is really nothing to pin down. It is not worth the effort of trying. You receive no reward for your struggle.

A good book does reward you for trying to read it. The best books reward you most of all. The reward, of course, is of two kinds. First, there is the improvement in your reading skill that occurs when you successfully tackle a good, difficult work. Second – and this in the long run is much more important – 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 to human life.

THE PYRAMID OF BOOKS

The great majority of the several million books that have been written in the Western tradition alone – more than 99 per cent of them – will not make sufficient demands on you for you to improve your skill in reading. … These are the books that can be read only for amusement or information. … In fact, you do not have to read them – analytically – at all. Skimming will do.

There is a second class of books from which you can learn – both how to read and how to live.  … These are the good books, the ones that were carefully wrought by their authors, the ones that convey to the reader significant insights about subjects of enduring interest to human beings. There are in all probably no more than a few thousand such books. … They are worth reading analytically – once. … You know that you will never have to read them again, although you may return to them to check certain points or to refresh your memory of certain ideas or episodes. (It is in the case of such books that the notes you make in the margin or elsewhere in the volume are particularly valuable.)

Of the few thousand such books there is a much smaller number – here the number is probably less than a hundred – that cannot be exhausted by even the very best reading you can manage. How do you recognize this? Again it is rather mysterious, but when you have closed the book after reading it analytically to the best of your ability, and place it back on the shelf you have a sneaking suspicion that there is more than you got. … You find that you cannot forget the book, that you keep thinking about it and your reaction to it. Finally, you return to it. And then a very remarkable thing happens.

If the book belongs to the second class of books to which we referred before, you find, on returning to it that there was less there than you remembered. The reason, of course, is that you yourself have grown in the meantime. Your mind is fuller, your understanding greater. The book has not changed, but you have. Such a return is inevitably disappointing.

But if the book belongs to the highest class – the very small number of inexhaustible books – you discover on returning that the book seems to have grown with you. You see new things in it – whole sets of new things – that you did not see before. Your previous understanding of the book is not invalidated (assuming that you read it well the first time); it is just as true as it ever was, and in the same ways that it was true before. But now it is true in still other ways, too.

Our point is that you should seek out the few books that can have this value for you. The are the books that will teach you the most, both about reading and about life. They are the books to which you will want to return over and over. They are the books that will help you to grow.