Welcome to our free series on the Forgotten Art of Slow Reading…something that we feel pretty passionate about here at Symposium!
Each day for three days we are going to talk about a challenge that readers of serious books – or those of us who would like to be readers of serious books – face.
I’ll offer up some ways to meet each challenge that have helped me and helped many of the readers I have worked with over the years in improving their own reading habits as well as supporting them in deepening the breadth and scope of what they are reading and how they are approaching the material.
So let’s get started with the first problem…its pretty obvious and yet strangely, few people want to talk about it.
Reading great books is hard.
Actually, reading is hard right now. We live in a world where any serious article or deep dive piece of literature online is prefaced with information telling you how long this will take you to read. Audio and visual media are replacing the written word at an ever increasing rate. The end result is that reading period is becoming a lost art.
And reading great books? The fundamental texts? Even harder.
Pick up any one, and try to read it. You’ll see what I mean. A voice from a bygone era is attempting to speak to you through black typeset on white or yellowing paper, printed on fragile leaves of a book – or ghostly digital paper. The voice is most often from a place far away, often speaks in a tongue not our own, in a style that doesn’t always penetrate the translations we use, nor map onto the current fashions of our speaking and thinking. And the thoughts and images are very involved. Very.
These books are tough.
Tough. But absolutely worth it.
These are the books that you have to go to if you want to understand where we are, how we got here, and where we are headed. These are the works where the ideas that have shaped our world for better and for worse were first articulated and set down.
You know this. You are here because you sense the possibility that these books open for you. And it is a possibility found in few places on earth. You also know that the meanings and understandings hidden inside the book can’t genuinely be yours unless you take it up yourself.
And you’d be exactly right.
There’s a certain allure, a charm, in the promise of straightening everything out and making it easy and clean – the promise held out, even implicitly, by popular lectures and articles about the old books. They want to give you a blue print to navigate the labyrinthine world of Plato, the many levels of Dante’s Inferno, the dreams that Freud is involved in interpreting.
The truth is that there is no “answer key” to the great books – like the answer keys in the back of textbooks. There is no blue print. You might enjoy reading article about Plato, or Dante or Freud, but don’t think for a moment that the article replaces the real deal.
To get the most out of the experience of reading, then, you should resist this allure. Reject the idea of answer keys and blue prints.
Instead, what you want to be able to do – as far as it is possible, and especially in the beginning – is read the book according to your own best lights.
Your best lights are good enough. They are exactly what they need to be for the task.
One of the biggest misconceptions about these books is that you have to be a super genius to read them.
Not true. You just have to read them. Actually take up the book and read. If you can read, and you can think about what you’re reading and think about your life, then you can do it.
You can do the work yourself of trying to come to terms with an author.
Not only is it more pleasurable for you in the long run, but it is better for you. And worlds open up for you, now that you are fearless about tackling a book like this for yourself.
Think about it like exercising. If you have a goal to lose weight or tone your muscles, or bike, run or swim a certain distance in a certain time, you wouldn’t outsource that work to someone else. You can ask for help and encouragement, which we call “accountability partners.”
But you don’t call up your best friend and say, “Hey there Tom, can you cut out those carbs for me; I need to lose weight” while stuffing yourself with carbs.
When it comes to internal work like this, work that aids in our physical growth and well-being, we don’t get someone else to do the heavy lifting for us…we can’t. It’s physically impossible.
Growth in understanding, clarity of mind and purpose – as it comes from reading, thinking and conversing – is no different. No one can do your growth in understanding and insight, but you yourself.
So, if the problem is that reading great books is hard, then my first piece of advice is to think of what you are doing – challenging reading – like a healthful form of exercise.
This is your book.
This is your mind.
Your job is to make the book your own, to really own it.
There’s a whole new world to step into here.
Now, how do you start to do that?
Join me for Part 2 as I’ll be sharing exactly that.