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Want a Better Life? Read a Book

Reading to improve your life.

"It may be seriously questioned whether the advent of modern communications media has much enhanced our understanding of the world in which we live."

This statement does not come from a contemporary critic of blogs, texting, social media, and the current glut of passive entertainment options, but the 1940 classic by Mortimer Adler, How to Read a Book. Obviously, this statement is just as (if not more) relevant today. We may know more about the world today—including mere facts and trivia—but we don't think very deeply about much of this, often accepting pre-packaged opinions rather than working through ideas ourselves or in discussion with a few other people.

As a professor, my sense is that some students have a more difficult time tracking a long argument or being patient enough to work through an issue over several days, weeks, or even months. Facebook status updates, tweets, blog posts (!), and text messages are relatively short and less demanding than reading a book. I believe that making a habit of reading books is useful for training the mind for critical thought. For this to occur, one must learn how to read well, or skillfully.

Reading is like other activities: the more effort you put forth and the more skill you possess, the better; but you'll only grow in skill as you challenge yourself. This means that you and I must read things that demand something of us. Portions of the book must be difficult to understand, or perhaps difficult to apply. But when we engage such books, the mind passes from understanding less to understanding more. This takes work, but unless you are reading merely for entertainment, some level of effort is required. And acquiring a deeper understanding about ourselves and the world we live in and applying it to life is conducive to building a better life and a better world.

Adler offers some advice about how to be a demanding reader as one interacts with books that have the capacity to change the reader. A demanding reader asks the following questions:

1. What is the book about as a whole?

What is the theme, or the main issue the book is focused on? What are the main subtopics covered related to the big idea of the book?

2. What are the main ideas, assertions, and arguments in the book?

What are the details of these, and how are they communicated?

3. Is the book true, in whole or in part?

What portions seem true? Which of your beliefs are challenged or affirmed?

4. So what?

What is the significance of the book, and the views it contains? Why does the author think it is important? Do you? Why or why not? What relevance does it have for human life?

To make a book truly your own, interact with it, "talk" with the author: underline major points and statements, circle key words and phrases, star/asterisk 10-12 major points/passages of the book, put numbers in the margin to track arguments or points of an argument made by the author, cross reference passages and points within the book, write at the top or bottom of a page, summarize a chapter in a few sentences at the beginning, ask questions and answer them in the margin.

I will close with a quote from Adler, which sums up why reading demanding books is 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 of human life" (pp. 340-341).

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