Reading, I believe, is something that many of us practice (perhaps) daily, but often unreflectively, if not even unconsciously—much like breathing. If only we lived as dependently on reading as we do on breathing for the continuance of life. By way of metaphor, to aid your consideration of active, engaged reading, I point out that in many forms of meditation this usually ignored activity of breathing should be at the forefront of consciousness. With similarly heightened concentration, does the book you are reading come to your mind’s forefront and become the focus of your thought? Do you work to understand the message the author has worked to present to you? Do you read works that exercise your mind? This is just as important as exercising your body. What about works that stretch your spirit as well as your mind? For such works exist. The great philosophical traditions of the East and West have been passed down through the ages primarily to us through the written word. So their benefits and their mysteries can only be unlocked by reading them—well.
As I am now at a point in my life where there are fewer years ahead than behind, I have become much more concerned about what materials I devote my reading time to and to reading books that are full-course literary feasts, rather than printed junk food. And I find fine meals on a pauper’s budget. In the past year, I purchased and read affordable paperback editions of classics—the Tao Te Ching, The War of the Worlds,Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, among others, all cheaper than most magazines and eminently more deserving of your reading time and attention. I finally landed that leviathan of a novel, Moby-Dick, and was set back only five bucks (all Dover editions). Actually, it was an investment. Voyaging with Ahab and crew is worth your time. I shall sail with them again one day soon. For those who claim little time to read, I counter that the day has pockets of time available to you. Pockets in your clothing help too. It is inevitable that over the course of the day you will visit places where you will have to wait in line: banks, post offices or queues for cashiers at stores. While I wait to pay at the supermarket, I could kill time scanning the tabloid headlines, or I can fish out a paperback of Aristotle’s Ethics and invest my time in something worth reflecting upon as I wait my turn.
And it’s OK to argue with him. These are choices I make that I believe foster my growth—intellectually, morally and spiritually. I offer them only in the spirit of suggestion. I believe that reading the classics of philosophic and literary traditions helps me to reach my potential as a human being—that is, a creature of curiosity with a powerful yearning for learning. I believe it will help you, too. There are two excellent books about reading well that I recommend. One is How to Read a Book, first published by Mortimer Adler in 1940 and extensively revised by him and Charles Van Doren in 1972. Both versions are worth reading, although the revision addresses the problems of teaching reading in our public schools and our colleges and universities with more contemporary findings and critiques. In this revision, the authors explain various levels of reading, including elementary, inspectional, analytical and “syntopical”—the most complex level.
The other book is An Experiment in Criticism, by C. S. Lewis. In it he expounds on some of the finest and highest reasons for reading well: “We seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than we are.” And: “We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own.” He comes to a striking conclusion: “In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. . . . I see with . . . myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. . . . I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.” I have more to say on this—such as how books can be time machines—and on similar issues that might be of interest to those who genuinely question the extensiveness and the liberating qualities of their education and who commit themselves to lifelong learning.