There are countless ways to read a book. This website, however, is primarily devoted to discussing how to read books pervasively; at the edge of your consciousness. In this way I hope to encourage you to strengthen your mind and become more aware and free from the conventional thoughts and myths of your time.
However at some point the problem inevitably arises for all of us that practicing a more systematic approach to reading grows passionless and becomes separated from what is primarily essential to our lives. This has been the bane of not just a few philosophers throughout history – they slipped into abstractions and there lost their sense of immediacy.
We all have felt this at one time or another to varying degrees. You probably were forced to read many books you didn’t want to when you were in school, and you may even to this day continue to force yourself to read certain books (like “the classics”) because you feel they will help you get a one up on the world – that is, if only you could “finish” Finnegan’s Wake.
There seems to be this all-pervading flaccidity that so many people perpetuate in their approach towards reading, and many people (including myself) find this quite repugnant.
I suspect a part of why people are often reticent to dive head first into a new book is they don’t know how to go about “turning themselves on” to it. If we take that analogy to its limit: we can say that we are living in a society where most everyone are sheepish lovers (aka readers), not sure what to do but also unwilling to even consider the idea that they can improve because their ego gets in the way.
However, if you want to get good at interpreting the meaning of books, both analytically and synthetically, you need to understand that you can always improve your skill as a reader; you can always grow in awareness (unless you’ve dissipated your self and are now a Buddha – but if that were the case you probably wouldn’t be reading this).
Before we can find ways to deal with flaccid reading, we need to understand what causes it.
I chose the word flaccid to describe this type of reading deliberately, for that is exactly what it is: flaccid; passionless; impotent.
Flaccid reading is usually caused by a lack of focus and boredom, and of those two we could probably reduce it to just boredom, because if you were focused you wouldn’t be bored, would you? Maybe a book is just too easy for you or it is about something you care little for. And if that’s the case, I ask you: “why bother with it in the first place, then?” It could also be the case, however, that you don’t know how to go about really ravishing that book.
The first two of those we can’t really do all that much about (besides, of course, just being more careful about the books we select to bring into our lives), but the last one we can.
To address this issue, I here proffer a simple attitude that you can adopt with your reading that will help you discover what is essential in a book and also make the whole process of ready a lot more exciting. I call it aggressive reading.
By aggressive reading I don’t mean you are reading as fast as possible or doing push-ups between each page you read to ensure you’re reading it with peak testosterone. What do I mean by aggressive reading? It is when you read a book with the mentality that you will dominate it (gracefully, usually); that you will make it your own. This means you are fundamentally looking at it as though it were a challenge. But not a challenge that you just have to overcome. No, it should feel like a delight to take on the unique challenge a book has to offer.
If the subject matter is one that will naturally stretch your mind, great! That’s probably a good book to challenge yourself with. But what if it’s already easy to grasp?
Well, in that case, I’d lay it aside and do something else. However, if you have to read it, let’s say for a class, there are still ways to challenge yourself and grow from it.
Yet that’s still not the whole picture – what if it’s not just the book’s fault that you don’t get it; what if it’s that you just don’t know what it is to focus on that would make it worthwhile?
Let me tell you a story:
I’ve never “got” jazz before. It always made me feel sort of rushed and uncomfortable. Whenever jazz played on the radio I intellectually could appreciate it, but emotionally it just didn’t do it for me.
Then one day I was invited by a girl I was dating to a jazz lounge. At the lounge, there was a pianist, a saxophonist, a drummer, a cellist, and a man playing the trumpet, all just improvising and playing off each other and the audience. I’d never seen anything like it. All the sudden I “got” jazz. It’s not about how the individual instruments sound or even so much the rhythms; it’s about the live aspect of it all. It’s about spontaneity and collaborating to make something awesome. It’s an atmosphere.
Before that I’d only ever heard unskillful musicians play live and people playing on the radio. But the context of driving in your car is rarely the audience jazz musicians have in mind when they make their music. It just seems somewhat… inappropriate.
Just the same way as I suddenly “got” jazz, sometimes I get this moment of clarity where I realize what to focus on while I’m reading a particular book.
As an aside, a good teacher will help you find these, and that’s one of the values of reading a book with other people, especially people who read critically for a living, like lit professors.
Sometimes it’s what the author seems to have intended to be focused on, like the facts or the story, but other times it’s a completely subjective focus – like the underlying heroics of a novel, or stylistic issues like sentence structure or the use of serial commas. There’re no limits here, especially when you’re reading a great book (and this is indeed part of what makes a great book great in the first place).
Essentially, aggressive reading is all about returning the emotional element to the activity of learning that we had when we were young, yet coupling it with our adult level of creative discipline.
How, specifically, do we do that? There are three ways I will talk about today, delimiting our discussion to gaining understanding from books:
- Raise Your Standards
- Focus on the Elements that Interest You
- Make the Book Your Own
Let’s look more closely at each one:
#1: Raise Your Standards
I’m not talking about just reading the classics here, I’m talking about raising your standards, not other people’s. Reading is all about questions – so you should choose books that address the issues you are yourself dealing with (but of course, also talk to others you trust or who are well versed in a specific topic to help you find what to read also). I recommend starting with books of the relatively agreed upon high quality and then taking your time to really digest them. If you’re reading books that you feel you should just be rushing through, that’s probably a sign that they are not worth your time at all.
But it’s not only raising your standards for the books that you read, but also your standards for how actively you read them. This means that you learn to read a book for understanding. And one part of doing so is finding the main veins of thought and also knowing what a particular book can offer you in the first place.
#2: Focus On the Elements that Interest You
This is related to my story earlier about jazz. There is a certain context that I needed to be aware of before I could learn to appreciate what was going on. Likewise, when you start to break down the mechanics of reading and the individual books you read, you start to uncover new layers of meaning; new secrets they have to offer. This can be a very exciting process.
However, even more than that, you choose elements that resound well with you. This is unavoidable already, but the trick is to trust yourself enough and be self-aware enough that you carefully attend to those elements.
#3: Make the Book Your Own
This means you are not afraid to take possession of the book. However, you possess a book not by just having it sit pristine on your shelves, but by really using it. One of the most surefire ways I know of taking possession of a book is getting out a pencil and marking it up as you read it. This will help you stay focused and also can serve as a guide for your thinking when you come through the book again.
The heart of aggressive reading is sincerity – you actually care about what you’re reading. It means that you value more discovering truth than the peace of passivity.
Intellectually we may feel it better to go all out when reading, or doing anything in the world really, but doing so is not always easy. We do have to rest sometimes, for one thing.
However, even more: it is scary to go all the way. In this specific case, people are afraid to really open up to being wrong, as being wrong can hurt and be quite inconvenient.
Yet you must push against your edge of comfort if you are to improve (with anything). Especially when it is your ego that is getting in the way of your growth.
In some ways, a book can serve as a mirror, but not a normal mirror, but a mirror that shows us our internal selves– teaching us how we think; how we see the world, all while presenting to us new ways of thinking and perceiving that we may not have previously understood. We all probably have that one book that has rewired us on a fundamental level – I know I certainly have some of those.
To wrap up today’s post, I want to pose a challenge to you: I challenge you to really dominate the next worthy book you read; to manifest its full potential through you and your unwavering consciousness. Read it against your own true edge. You will be grateful if you do.