There Are Two Ways to Read — One Is Useless
Reading is telepathy, and a book is the most powerful technology invented.
Homer, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Woolf, Hemingway — these are names without a living body. We can’t talk to them, nor touch them, but their thoughts are immortalized through the written word.
Aristotle’s logic, Kepler’s astronomy, Newton’s physics, Darwin’s biology, Wittgenstein's philosophy — these are memes without living originators. They no longer champion their ideas, and yet, we still talk about them.
Without books, humans would never have escaped the boundaries of space and time. Each new generation would have had to learn the realities of life for themselves rather than having the luxury to build on the past; knowledge accumulation would have quickly dimmed towards an asymptote.
Everything that we value in the modern world has its root in invention of writing. Everything that we have accomplished has come from reading.
Even on an individual level, one of the most effective ways to learn about the world is to dip your toes into the wisdom of the past. Instead of spending your life figuring out how the mind works, you can just seek out the experience of someone who already knows. Rather deducing the laws of nature yourself, you can simply refer to an existing body of work.
Even beyond that, reading is a joy. It’s a touch of growth, it’s a beacon of inspiration, and it’s source of connection. We are how we spend our time, and we become what we consume. It only makes sense, then, that what we read informs how we see the world.
That said, there is more to reading than just whispering words in our mind. It’s about mindset, too. The way you read plays a major role in what you take away. It shapes what you pay attention to and how you evolve.
Unfortunately, I think this part of the equation is often neglected.
Is It About Right or Wrong?
Most of us learn to read in school, and when we do, it’s for one of two reasons: to memorize or to critique — both with the intent of choosing right or wrong.
When we memorize out of a textbook, the goal is essentially to score well on tests. Even if we don’t directly memorize word for word, the aim is still to absorb all the details in one defined area so that we can write an exam. Anything outside of that matters very little for the end result.
Similarly, when we critique something, say, like a piece of literature or a historical decision, our goal is to establish distinctions between what is right and what is wrong, and we have to ensure that everything we read fits into a predefined box so that we can make a strong case.
This works in school, and it teaches in its own way, but unfortunately, when reading in the real world, this kind of mindset cheats us out of knowledge.
I know people who have gone through this process, been seduced by it, and then feel that if they can’t remember or memorize all they read, they are wasting their time, hence discouraging them from further reading.
I also know people — and these people are abundant on the internet — that can’t help but read everything with a critical lens. They’re so intent on finding every little fault in something that they always miss the larger point. They dismiss anything that doesn’t align with their existing model of reality, and they forget to pay attention to what lies beyond black and white.
Now, having the focus to absorb what you need is critical and so is having a filter in place to detect if what you’re reading is factually wrong.
That said, anytime you read something with the mindset that you are there to extract what is right and what is wrong, you are by default limiting how much you can get out of a particular piece of writing. You’re boxing an experience that has many dimensions into just two.
One of things that becomes increasingly clear to anybody that reads a lot is that if you were to only read books that you agree with a 100% or those that are worth memorizing in full, you would soon run out of options.
Reading isn’t about jumping at details. It’s about incorporating a perspective.
The Real Joy of Reading
Where, then, is perspective? If we shouldn’t recall all we consume, nor wear a lens of criticism, where exactly does the value in reading lie?
To answer that, we have to dissect why we read in the first place, and that reason is actually relatively simple— we read to understand.
You might be reading a modern-day comedy, or a Russian classic. You could be going through the latest pop-psychology volume, or an old Roman emperor’s notebook. Either way, you’re trying to put yourself in a different mode of reality so that you can absorb some of what the writing is telling you.
In this case, the only filter worth having is the one that distinguishes between what is relevant and what is not; what matters and what doesn’t.
When you filter by right or wrong, not only are you trying to paint a whole with the smaller component of its parts, but you’re also limiting what you understand. Who is to say that there isn’t a lesson in what is wrong? Or more importantly, who is to say that what you assume to be right or wrong is just a current bias that, one day, you will come to readjust?
Any time I reread a book that has been important to me in the past, I always come back with new lessons. Most books contain more than one idea, and they say different things in different places.
I can count many instances where I have arrogantly dismissed something that I thought I knew, or that didn’t make sense to me, or that I judged prematurely — assuming knowledge of right and wrong — only to learn that with a new mindset and a sharper and more nuanced point of view, that something contained profound wisdom.
The better questions to ask are always: What is right about this? Even if this isn’t what I believe or value or see as true, why does someone else believe it?
The point of reading isn’t to memorize, and it’s certainly not to critique. It’s to absorb and filter with an open mind — to find the right thing at the right time so that you can improve and update your existing model of reality rather than mold whatever you’re reading to fit into it as it is.
The beauty of this mindset is that you don’t actually need to filter this consciously. You just need to decide that it’s okay not to agree, and it’s fine to overlook what doesn’t make sense. From there, your mind will automatically filter for what is relevant and what is not.
When it does, you’ll know — it’ll change you in a way memorization can’t.
Reading isn’t just a delightful hobby. If done well, it’s also a virtue. It teaches you more than just how to live and what to do; it teaches you how to see.
By diving into the minds of some of the greatest thinkers and storytellers, it moves us into realms of reality that would otherwise stay unknown to us. We often walk out a good book with a new pair of eyes, and we can then use these eyes to create a better world around us, if we so choose.
That said, in order for a book to have this effect, we do also have to do our part. We have come in with the correct mindset, and we have to put ourselves in a perceptual state that is okay with fine-tuning itself.
Contrary to how most of us learn to read, the process isn’t limited to the two simple dimensions of extracting right and wrong. And every time we approach it with this mentality, we cheat ourselves out of a more nuanced lens of understanding; we limit retention.
Every word, every sentence, and every paragraph of a good piece of writing has the potential to teach you something. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be selective about what you read or that you can’t give up on something that isn’t speaking to you. What it means is that for something to move you, you have to be ready to be moved.
If you come in with an open mind, you might actually leave with something in it. If you filter for relevancy and understanding, that’s what you will find, and that’s when you will truly capture the joys of the written form.
Or as George R.R. Martin puts it in a A Dance with Dragons:
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.”