Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

If reading is activity, why doesn’t it burn calories?

Written by: on October 5, 2017

Welcome back to reality!  It didn’t take long to have to readjust back to reading (or not), writing blogs, gathering research resources, and developing annotated bibliographies.  My blissful two weeks of experiential learning is surely over – or at least that was my attitude as I began reading the book “How to Read a Book, The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading” by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren.  Admittedly I was skeptical of the benefit of tackling the reading of this dry literature.  However, I did glean some good material from the text.  There are three significant points which I will be highlighting.

  1. Adler and Van Doren write “Reading is a complex activity, just as writing is.” [1] I appreciate the acknowledgement of reading as an “action” however I ascribe to Clay’s further development of this concept, “Reading is a complex, problem-solving activity, which increases in power and flexibility the more it is practiced”[2] My initial reaction to this statement is – no wonder my brain is so tired after I read texts, journals, and articles (and I am a little sad that it doesn’t burn more calories).  The mental acuity required to “read well” is significant.  It also explains the very real concept of brain fatigue.  Brain fatigue manifests as mental fatigue, burnout, or feeling tired.[3]  When the brain has reached a level of dysfunction from fatigue, brain degeneration can occur.  The following case example from highlights a classic case of brain fatigue:

A middle age adult is having a mid-life crisis and decides to change careers and go back to school. This once busy executive, who could multi-task without crashing, now finds that going back to school full-time in a new area of study is exhausting. He has to read the material a number of times to understand it. He comes home after a full day at school, and he is exhausted, having to go to bed by 8:00. He finds that home life starts suffering, and he is not able to maintain the school schedule as he had been when he was in his twenties. This reflects ongoing wear and tear, brain fatigue that the brain is not able to compensate for or manage well. This reflects more significant difficulties and reflects a growing problem with the brain.[4] 

Therefore, it is essential that the reader practices intentionality when it comes to “reading well”.  Finding coveted time when the brain is fresh and able to retain material is crucial.  The reader should also be aware of self-care.  When the brain is fatigued, reading will not be effective.    

2.  “Reading is learning from an absent teacher”[5]. As a college instructor, this concept resonates with me – getting students to read assigned materials is a struggle.  Academics are often guilty of feeding students enough material that they don’t need to read the text.  However, when Adler and Van Doren go on to say “when you ask a book a question, you must answer it yourself”, it accentuated the very essence of why I believe reading is important.  Reading – and then attempting to understand and apply the content – requires critical thinking skills.  In the age of google searches, critical thinking becomes a dying art.  As a society we must change the course on fast and furious information.  Too much information is not necessarily a good thing.  As a society that values critical thinking, expecting a student to read, question, analyze, and seek answers is crucial.

3.  “The role of relevant experience, special experience must be actively sought and is only available to those who go to the trouble of acquiring it”[6]. Adler and Van Doren specifically refer to Science and experiments when discussing special experience.  I’m going to take the liberty of “arguing” with the authors a bit and stretch this concept to discuss our trip to South Africa.  I believe that all special experience related to a topic is important.  For example, after reading and blogging about Welsh’s The Rise and Fall of Apartheid, I thought I had a decent understanding of the circumstances and history of Apartheid.  However, my understandings were infantile in comparison to what we learned on the ground.  Seeing the sites of District Six and Robben Island bring history to life – in a way reading a book cannot do.  I’m a tremendous advocate for reading, but I’m an even bigger advocate for experiential learning.  While it’s challenging to connect my research interest to this text, I can say that reading articles and books about the refugee experience in the United States in no way captures the face to face story and narratives of refugee people.  Words are only a piece of the puzzle.  When you look in someone’s eyes, hear the tone of their voice, and see their body language – only then can you understand the full story.

While I can’t claim that Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s text is the most interesting or exciting reading we’ve done thus far, I will concede to the importance of understanding how to read well.  It sets me on an improved academic trajectory and gives me key skills to move forward in this incredible program.

[1] Mortimer J Adler and Charles Van Doren.  How to Read a Book.  (New York:  Simon & Schuster, 1972), loc198

[2] Clay, M . M . (2001). Change over time in children’s literacy development . Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann .

[3] https://www.wellnessresources.com/news/brain-fatigue-101

[4] https://www.wellnessresources.com/news/brain-fatigue-101

[5] Adler & Van Doren, How to Read a Book, loc337

[6] Adler & Van Doren, How to Read a Book, loc2486

About the Author

Jean Ollis

11 responses to “If reading is activity, why doesn’t it burn calories?”

  1. Jennifer Williamson says:

    Hi Jean! Your title made me laugh out loud. If reading burned calories I’d be a size 4!!!

    I tried to start reading this book during my layover in Amsterdam on the trip home, and honestly, the book made no sense to me. I picked it up two days later, and found it to be clear and easy to read. Why? You hit the nail on the head when you wrote, “When the brain is fatigued, reading will not be effective.”

    You also say that special experience related to a topic is important. I couldn’t agree more. Are you considering ways that you might gain “special experience” about refugees to inform you on your topic beyond the reading you will do?

  2. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Jean!

    I hope you have transitioned well and are back into the swing of things at MVNU. It was good to meet your husband and talk HUNTING!

    I was impressed with the variation of your sources, and especially your thoughts on brain fatigue.

    I, too, am an “experiential learner” and like you, very much enjoyed the experiences we were blessed to participate in while savoring Cape Town…


  3. Kyle Chalko says:

    Jean, I especially resonate with your highlighting of the the book as an absent teacher. This is a good point and helps us remember to go into the book with a question or a problem in mind, just as if we had sought time with a teacher or tutor. To not do so would be like wandering around a museum hoping to find something of significance. and of course sometimes luck aligns and we do find something of value. But at what cost? How much better to ask a question to the book and seek to find it.

  4. david says:

    Hey Jean,

    Thanks for this post and lining out your ideas and argument so well. I especially liked the part about “experiential learning” in conjunction with (or maybe in contrast to) “book learning” alone. It seems like those two go together, but they are both necessary parts. Are you ready to transition back to the home front for 11 months of reading? Will there be experiential learning opportunities where you live and work? I know you’ll find them!

  5. Jean, thank you for this post.

    You stated, “I can say that reading articles and books about the refugee experience in the United States in no way captures the face to face story and narratives of refugee people. Words are only a piece of the puzzle. When you look in someone’s eyes, hear the tone of their voice, and see their body language – only then can you understand the full story.”

    These comments took me back to a year ago. I was privileged to play a small role in connecting my church to an unusual opportunity to assist a Syrian refugee family arriving in Canada. We were part of a tripartite partnership between a mosque, synagogue, and our church to host this family’s arrival, having pledged to assist them at settling into life in Toronto for a year. The Muslim organizer was a dynamic female ophthalmologist who was convicted that as Canadians we needed to model interfaith cooperation and mutual respect by cohosting a refugee family together. She sought Christians and Jews to collaborate with her.

    The family landed at Pearson Airport, and about 40 of us, representing the three monotheistic faiths, had gathered to welcome them. They emerged from customs and immigration, tears streaming down their faces, and the grandfather pulled out a typewritten speech in English which he gratefully and humbly read to all assembled, thanking all of us present for the opportunity to give his granddaughters the potential to become engineers or teachers. Then the younger granddaughter, who had memorized our national anthem, sang O Canada with gusto.

    This experience will stay with me forever as I had a window into the beginning of a new life for this family. People often have strong opinions against immigration. But when you witness the pain in the eyes of people who have fled crisis, and the joy on being granted an opportunity for a better life, objections dissolve.

    I am excited by your dissertation research and wish you well as you dive into it.

    • Jean Ollis says:

      Hi Mark!

      Thank you for your excellent illustration (and for the beautiful work you do in your country and community). I can’t think of any situation in which the face to face relationship and story doesn’t change someones biases or preconceived notions. I can’t wait to dive into my own work with refugees.

  6. Hey Jean, love the title, and I agree reading should burn calories. I loved your insight and additional resources regarding why I feel so tired when I read and why my brain gets such a workout besides the fact that I’m ADHD. I also can’t agree more about the value of experiential learning being often times more valuable than just reading alone. We had such a blast with you and your hubby in Cape Town and feel like we already have some lifelong friends.

  7. Shawn Hart says:

    Jean, wonderful thoughts. I wanted to comment on what you wrote concerning experiential learning. I believe you stated that wonderfully. I had to admit to the church that my previous understanding of Apartheid was just ignorance before our trip. Furthermore, though our book on Apartheid was very enlightening, I do not believe it would have had the effect on me had I not just returned from South Africa. It is one thing to read about a bench that was for “whites only”, but to actually sit on one in South Africa had a completely different effect on me. I have always joked that “If the book is any good, then they will make it into a movie;” however, that may sound good for “Lord of the Rings,” it just does not really ring true when dealing with history, suffering, and true trials. I doubt I will ever forget standing in the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem; though I was surrounded by people, it seemed as though time stopped and history started. Though not having the same impact on me as the Garden did, when I touched the bars on the Nelson Mandela’s cell, it became real to me.

  8. Shawn Hart says:

    Oh, and I believe if you eat the pages of the books as you read them, not only do you get more fiber in your diet, but you also fill up faster. Thus the book diet.

  9. Jason Turbeville says:


    I really appreciate your 3rd point on special experience was a good one. I too thought I was well versed on apartheid from our reading, and some other videos I had watched on youtube but being in SA and hearing the voices and seeing the eyes of those who were persecuted was infinitely more important to my understanding of the struggle the nation has gone through than any book could bring me. I love reading but as I have gotten older my experiences have shaped my thoughts more than any book short of scripture has.


  10. M Webb says:

    Welcome back! I am waiting to hear from your son at the USAFA. Based on what I am seeing out here, they need more pilots!
    Thanks for focusing on the “relevant and special experience” comments from Adler. I also saw them as key themes that connect each of us, individually and collectively, to the narratives that we review. I think you will enjoy the next book by Bayard. I promise you will enjoy reading our classmates “shock and awe” after all their next read….or “non-reading” experience.
    As practical and time saving as Adler’s techniques are, prepare to be stretched next week with Bayard’s insights. Like many of our fellow Elite-8 members, I wish I had read Adler a long time ago.

    Stand firm,

    M. Webb

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