To Read Or Not To Read…

angry-reader-467x267I am a reader, and proud of it.  I rarely spend less than 3 hours each day reading, and I mean books, not just emails, articles, blogs, letters, ads, magazines, Post-It® Notes, etc.  On days off, I read more like 6-7 hours.  I am an eclectic reader.  There are few things I won’t tackle, and I voraciously seek books that are “over my head.”  In two recent settings, the conversation turned to reading, and both startled/troubled me.  Sitting with friends and colleagues, I mentioned that for the past fifteen years I have read at least 200 books each year (and in 2006, when I broke my leg, I read 365 — a book a day).  Someone I well-respect immediately responded, “What a waste of time!”  I asked what he meant, and he said, “There is virtually nothing of value in books.  Books are just a passive way to avoid life.  I don’t think I have read more than three books since I graduated seminary.”  I couldn’t believe this attitude, and it got worse when others around the table chimed in.  “I simply don’t have time to read.”  “I only read romances.”  “I read about two or three books a year, but I don’t really retain much of what I read.”  “Reading puts me to sleep.”  One female colleague very sheepishly said, “Well, I enjoy reading, and I think it helps me improve myself.”  In a group of a dozen, only two came out strongly in favor of reading, and a few were actually opposed.

In a very similar setting, I recommended a couple of books I’ve read recently that I felt were exceptionally good.  Again, the reaction was along the lines of “I don’t read/don’t have time/don’t enjoy reading.”  One person said, “Sum it up.  I only take time to read a paragraph or a few sentences.  If what I am reading can’t communicate in 50 words or less, I figure it’s not worth my time.”  In our information bloated culture, sound-bites and data-bits are all many people take time for.  In this setting, one person was actually fascinated by the idea that I could not just read, but finish, multiple books in a week.  She asked, “How do you do it?” as if I had performed some miraculous wonder.  A second person, who knows me well, said, “I’m not just impressed with how much you read, but with how much you retain and your ability to synthesize it.”  (If you want to truly flatter a reader, there is simply no higher praise than this…)

These two conversations reminded me that for many people reading is not a normal, natural, regular activity, but is exceptional and all-too-often rare.  While illiteracy has decreased in our country, non-literacy has boomed.  Poll after poll, survey after survey indicates that reading is minimal and on the decrease (even as book/e-book sales increase).  A recent poll on reading habits used the following choices to their questions about books read in a year:  a) 0, b) 1, c) 2, d) 3, e) 4 or more.  More than four books in a single year was offered as the high-bar…  Yikes.

Other surveys show that many of the people who do read either limit themselves to recreational reading or to the reading of thoughts and ideas that agree with their own opinions and worldview.  Among Republican males, age 55 and older who read four or more books in a year, 87% read a book by Bill O’Reilly, Newt Gingrich or Glenn Beck (21% read a book by all three).  The implication is that what reading is done is not done with the hope or intention of expanding one’s horizon or having one’s assumptions challenged.  Reading is divorced from learning or personal development.  Another survey offered respondents five choices:  love reading, enjoy reading, will read if necessary, dislike reading, hate reading.  The breakdown?  Love reading — 5%; Enjoy reading – 21%, Read if necessary — 39%; Dislike reading – 25%; Hate reading – 10% (13,151 = sample size).  Twice as many people hate reading as love reading?  More people dislike reading than enjoy reading?  Seventy-four percent (3-out-of-4) will only read if absolutely necessary and required?  I live in a different world…

Under my “Best Books — April 2014” tab I review what I consider to be a classic — Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren’s, How to Read a Book.  Most adults today might wonder about the need to read a 400+ page book on how to read.  We all assume we know how to read, but I realize that my deep enjoyment of reading is due in part to my discovery of this book when I was in high school.  I read it again when I was in seminary.  Reading it again last week reminded me why I love reading so much.  I am an active, syntopic reader (for definitions, read my review — or better yet, read the book).  I engage information and work to own it, processing and synthesizing so that information becomes knowledge.  I retain as much as I do because of the influence of this book.  I truly believe that the value, benefit and pleasure of reading is so enhanced by Adler and Van Doren’s treatment, that many who dislike reading or only read what they must could become avid readers.

We live in an information age, but we are caught in a paradox: the more information we receive, the less we know and understand.  We do not live in a knowledge age.  We do not live in a wisdom age.  We are being trained, shaped and cultivated to create an attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) culture.  We are losing the capacity to read and interpret at anything beyond an elementary level.  And we are paying a very steep price.  We are not stupid people, but we are ignorant people.  At its root, the concept of ignorance is a willful disregard (ignore-ance) and a rejection of what we dislike or disbelieve.  We choose not to know.  We choose not to learn.  We choose not to grow.

Are books the only way to know and grow?  Of course not.  Should everyone be a reader?  No, but everyone should be a learner, and books are a phenomenal way to learn and be challenged to think.  As a people of faith, and as a people “of the Book,” reading should not be an option, but a discipline.  There is not one feature of How to Read a Book that could not (should not) be applied to the reading of Hebrew and Christian scripture.  In fact, if you love God and wish to understand God’s Word and Will better, tackle How to Read a Book first, and see what happens the next time you enter scripture.

9 replies

  1. Dan: I agree with the premise that we need to read/learn – and comprehend – more than we do. What’s ironic is that Amazon.com offers Adler and VanDoren’s “How to Read a Book” not only in printed form, but as a Kindle book and as both an MP3-Audio CD and an AudibleBook! I must confess that much of my “reading” over the past few years has been via Audio Books – mostly because of time – but that is also a reflection of another symptom of our society – “multi-tasking.” I listen to books as I’m doing other things. And I’m not sure I always “hear” everything in the process. Apparently we have also succumbed to the illusion that “we don’t have time to do one thing at a time”! Thanks for your thoughtful commentary!

    • I listen to audiobooks, too (though I don’t count them in my “reading time”). However, Wisconsin is a BIG state and I find that “listening” to books is a great supplement to reading them. Once again, I love choosing books that will challenge, confound, stretch, and push me. The downside of audio books for me is not being able to highlight and take notes…

  2. Thanks for the tips. “How to Read a Book” was recommended to me as an important classic this past January. It is on my reading list but I hadn’t considered it much lately. This was a good inspiration to get it now.

  3. Great ideas! Thank you. Even in retirement I read, often two or three books at a time. How does one live without reading?

  4. Another book to add to my pile! I love reading and I also love audiobooks – in fact it is not unusual for me to either read the actual book and then listen to it, or vice versa – I learn different things from listening to it than I do just reading it.

  5. Hello,

    We are a not-for-profit educational organization founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery—three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos—lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading, on one DVD. A must for all readers, libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

    I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are—we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

    http://www.thegreatideas.org/HowToReadABook.htm

    ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

    Thank you,

    Max Weismann, Co-founder with Dr. Adler

  6. I, too, love to read books and I owe much of my sense of wonder and adventure to them. Growing up on a farm, I was often transported to far away places through the pages of a library book. I can’t imagine my life or home without books–they bring me immense joy and insights. Thank you for the gentle reminder that reading books is an excellent use of time.

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