I was in the second grade when my habits of reading were shaped. The program was called “Book-It” and the method was designed around repetition and quantity. The idea was that competition was the ideal lever to pull in order to generate children who were fond of reading. That, if we learned to read, with expediency, every word of every page, with rewards lingering in the immediate future, we’d become savvy readers and more thoughtful students. The number of pages and books read were publicly tracked and those who read the most were rewarded generously with the applause of teachers, the admiration of peers, and access to free individual pizzas at the local pizza place. Ever a competitive individual, I won the “Post-Gold” award as the top reader in my grade level and was acknowledged and celebrated in front of the entire school at year’s end.
While the accolades were momentarily meaningful, three reading habits were formed that took years to undo. First, quantity reading trumped quality reading, leaving me as one who could consume a book quickly but could not offer thoughtful reflection on what I had just read. Second, in order to win the competition, I learned to select accessible, entertaining literature rather than books that would challenge my reading ability and mature my thinking. Third, because the books that I consumed as a youngster were library books and because “one never writes in these books!” I learned to accept the details of the story or, later, the arguments of the author, at face value rather than to disagree or contrast it with other thoughts. In the hours spent learning to read, I had become savvy at elementary reading but had never cultivated the practice of, as Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren identify in How to Read a Book: The Ultimate Guide, analytical reading.
It wasn’t until one fateful Saturday when I showed up as a Junior in High School to a testing sight with my two, yellow, well-sharpened, #2 pencils that I discovered my deficit in reading for meaning. The ACT test was being administered and I thought that I had done everything necessary in order to prepare for success. I had honed my arithmetic and science knowledge. I had dusted off my bullet points on US American history. My creative writing was on point. I had gotten a good night’s sleep and had consumed a nutritious breakfast. I entered the room knowing what score I needed in order to make myself competitive for the University of my dreams and blew through the math, science, and writing sections with surprising ease.
My morning came to a standstill on the reading retention section. I was on the clock, expected to read and analyze fairly complex pieces of literature of various genres, and then reflect on what I had just read in essay form. I attacked the literature with elementary reading techniques as I had in second grade, mindlessly consuming the words and sentences with nary a circled word nor underlined phrase on the document. Done with the reading, I turned my attention to the essay questions and was stunned to an abrupt halt by my inability to offer any quality reflections. I was in trouble and time was running out. The final thirty minutes of the ACT exposed my deficit. It was a terrifying moment that launched me into the journey of analytical reading.
Dr. Black, my Freshmen English professor was the first to introduce me to How to Read a Book. With this resource in hand, she taught me about genre and why it matters, schooled me in the art of annotation and building accurate summaries, invited me to interact with the author and her/his main arguments, and exposed me to literature that, far from the leisure reading of my upbringing, forced me to reflect, respond, synthesize, and disagree. Pulling from Adler & Van Doren’s principals, she demonstrated and then pushed me to prove to myself that his method for reading was not only efficient (I was healed of the need to read every word of a book) but effective in mining and engaging in conversation, if not arguing with, the very best of an author’s arguments. By year’s end, quality reading had replaced quantity reading as the new rule. However, with the onset of the internet, the challenge became searching for quality in the quickly over-saturating milieu of the world-wide web.
It was just when I was learning to admire thoughtfulness and critical thinking for the first time, that the onset of blogging and, in the years to come, with the inception of social media, un-researched, opinionated sound bites laden with strong emotion created a new norm for “discourse.” It is no longer the thoughtful, deeply researched, and grounded idea that sets the pace, but the quick and eloquent provocative, often divisive phrase or sentence. A competitive war that is oversaturated with click-bait has replaced an invitation into true, thoughtful reading and discourse and seems to be the new industry standard for writing and, sadly, for reading, too. Thoughtful writing and reading is still essential, however, it seems not inadequate in keeping pace with the fisty-cuffs and childish banter of dangerously thin sound bites.
The result? Our own pre-disposed perspectives and premature conclusions shape the way we read (& listen) such that we no longer read analytically, but combatively. In Paul Graham’s, thought-provoking article, “Keep Your Identity Small”, he reflects on why religious and political conversation is so rarely generative, aptly points out that, because these two topics contain multiple understandings of truths and are so closely connected to a person’s sense of identity that wonder and civil discourse have been replaced with fracturing opinions. People don’t need to be well-read in order to engage in an impassioned debate about their ideals. So toxic has conversation become on these two issues that we no longer read to understand the perspective of another, resulting in civil, mutually beneficial conversation and transformation. Instead we read in an effort to reinforce the infrastructure around our own sense of personal and tribal identity as well as to innovate and amplify our ammunition against anyone who would dare hold an opposing idea.
An alternative? Enter Dr. Martyn Pearcy who, at our London/Oxford Advance, was a shining example of the kinds of thoughtful, well-researched ballasts needed within the contemporary sea of click-bait. He was humble and incredibly well read. Both in his presentation and accompanying handouts, Dr. Pearcy demonstrated how his thoughts had been shaped by his literary influencers. With the commentary that he added to the thoughts of his philosophical and theological heroes, he demonstrated for us who we can become as we learn to apply the principles of Adler’s masterpiece. He proved to us that learning to read well is the antidote to the click-bait that threatens to define and divide our world.
So what can we pull from Adler & Van Doren, Graham, and Pearcy as we seek to become the antidote to click-bait reasoning? First, we must read to be transformed rather than to consume. Transformation does not mean that we agree, but that we allow what we are reading to change and/or deepen our thinking and perspective. Second, we must choose to read perspectives that differ from our own, not in an attempt to discredit them, but with a desire to understand. For, if we are going to be come savvy at civil discourse, then we must learn to interact thoughtfully and critically with the origins of the ideas that others espouse. Third, like Pearcy demonstrated, we must learn to draw threads between the reflections that we’re reading such that, over time, a tapestry of thought is formed that, fused with humility, inspires careful consideration by our listenership and readership.