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Reading Habits

( Originally Published 1912 )

IT is natural for man to pursue knowledge, and to wish to develop his God-given capacities to the highest degree. It is equally natural for him to wish to impart his knowledge to others. Men, however, are often sluggish in mind and body, and their powers must be roused into action through some special influence. Once this mental and physical indolence is overcome, they derive genuine pleasure from study and reading.

To be an exact thinker, man must be an exact reader and observer. This may be acquired through self-discipline. He can read books without becoming bookish. He has constant opportunities of reasoning for himself about what he reads, hears and sees on all sides.

One of the most important and valuable sources of knowledge is the reading of good books. The reader's object is not merely to understand words, or "to contradict and confute," or "to believe and take for granted," but to get clear-cut ideas and make them his own. The multiplicity of books in these days renders it difficult to choose wisely. A man may well inquire: Js this book worth while? Do I read it because a friend, who per-chance may not know my needs, recommends it? What purpose will it serve? Will it contribute anything to my mental growth, my happiness, my general development? What, really, is the object of my reading amusement, information, knowledge, or spiritual uplift? What should guide me in my choice of books? To sift the worth-while books from the annual output of thousands of volumes requires taste and judgment. A man may stock his library shelf full with books, and leave his mind unfurnished.

Schopenhauer describes the difference between the self-thinker and the book philosopher as revealed in their manner of delivery. That of the first is earnest, direct, original; the other dull, flat and conventional. To read for a definite purpose gives mental alertness, since the reader is anxious to absorb all he possibly can. One may put this to the test by trying to recall anything he has ever read in an aimless desultory fashion. A man should read to confirm and supplement his own ideas. He should feel that he is constantly building himself. He will, therefore, reflect upon what he reads. He will read both sides of a question in order to determine for himself where the weight of truth rests. His object should never be merely to be able to talk copiously and with the appearance of many-sided knowledge. He is not to aim at being a plausible talker, but a convincing and persuasive speaker. Reading is a means to an end, and we must never substitute literature for life, nor reading for thinking.

In his inspiring book on "The Practise of Self-Culture," Hugh Black says : "The best education grows from the broadening intelligence that comes through eye and ear and the simple experiences of life. The man who forms the habit of observation in its widest sense lives in a world that grows wider and richer, and finds in it an inexhaustible source not only of increasing knowledge, but also of fresh wonder and delight. The profoundest wisdom is always that which is being constantly verified by contact with nature and with life." This explains the peculiar delight to be found in reading a good . book in God's out-of-doors. In the woods, at the seashore, or on the great ocean, a book takes on a new charm and helpful influences seem to be all about the reader. One should read to secure clear and settled notions of things, in order that he may be able correctly to judge the statements of other men and correctly set forth his own. He should avoid haste and the too common habit of skimming books. Reading simply gives us the material of knowledge, but it is through thinking that we make it our own. Storing the memory and training the judgment are two different things. No matter how slow and tedious the process may be, if the student at first reads slowly and understandingly, he will soon gain facility.

Some persons are omnivorous readers. As soon as they finish one book they hurry to another and so rush madly from book to book, greedily devouring their contents but not digesting them. A careful reader will read a book slowly enough to examine the writer's, purpose or argument, to weigh it in his mind and to draw conclusions of his own. Such reading is worth while, and all other reading, unless merely for passing amusement, is a waste of time. In forming one's mental habits it is advisable to select only those writers who are known for clearness of style and skilful use of words. Habits are quickly and unconsciously formed from one's reading, and soon become second nature.

Every tendency to wandering of the mind should be promptly checked. The reader must keep himself alert, with his mind fastened upon the subject before him, and as often as his attention wanders he must lead it gently but firmly back again. Repeated efforts of this kind will produce the desired results. Charming says:

"Intellectual culture consists, not chiefly, as many are apt to think, in accumulating information, tho this is important, but in building up a force of thought which may be turned at will on any subjects on which we are called to pass judgment. This force is manifested in the concentration of the attention, in accurate, penetrating observation, in reducing complex subjects to their elements, in diving beneath the effect of the cause, in detecting the more subtle differences and resemblances of things, in reading the future in the present, and especially in rising from particular facts to general laws of universal truths."

By too much reading we are likely to give over our mind to the control of others and allow them to think for us. It is better to work out our own mental sums than have them done by others. Too much reading is bewildering, and unless we think for ourselves we soon lose the power of original effort. Schopenhauer warns us that too much reading deprives the mind of its elasticity; and that "scholars are those who have read in books ; but thinkers, geniuses, enlighteners of the world and benefactors of the.. human race, are those who have directly read in the book of the world."

Life is too precious and fleeting to spend it with inferior literature. Our reading should not be fitful "like a lighted candle in a windy place," but be steadied and regulated by a clear persistent purpose. It may be necessary to have the counsel of others in the judicious ordering of books. If, however, we are obliged to choose for ourselves, we may critically examine the preface and table of contents of a book, to determine its' value as best we can, or, like Gladstone, we may first lightly skim its contents to know whether it is what we wish or not, or we may avail ourselves of the criticisms and commendations of the book reviewers.

To make the contents of a book our very own, we should own it. Then we are at liberty to mark it as we please, to indicate special passages for easy reference, to impress important truths upon our mind, or to indicate to others the parts that have most interested us. A second careful reading of some books is necessary to a thorough grasp of their contents. A few books well read, noted, digested, and intelligently discust are worth more than a whole library of volumes indifferently read. The student must bring his attention and judgment to bear upon what he reads. He will frequently inquire of the author. Is he clear, accurate, fair-minded? Are his reasons conclusive, his inferences correct, his proofs convincing? He will observe not only the force and logic of his arguments, but the general quality of his thought, as well as his use of word, phrase, idiom, metaphor, and illustration. His attitude of mind will be critical, but he will learn all he can from his author without unduly yielding his independence of judgment.

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