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Attention In Reading

( Originally Published 1907 )

A DISTINGUISHED lawyer of an Eastern city relates that while engaged in an argument upon which vast issues depended he suddenly realized that he had forgotten to guard a most important point. In that hour of excitement his faculties became greatly stimulated. Decisions, authorities and precedents long since forgotten began to return to his mind. Dimly outlined at first, they slowly grew plain, until at length he read them with perfect distinctness. Mr. Beecher had a similar experience when he fronted the mob in Liverpool. He said that all events, arguments and appeals that he had ever heard or read or written passed before his mind as oratorical weapons, and standing there he had but to reach forth his hand and seize the weapons as they went smoking by." Newell Dwight Hillis.


Concentrated attention the price of understanding; Exhaustive understanding the only true reading; Review and discussion the storing methods of memory;

These exercises, deliberately and persistently followed, sure developers of the scholar's Will.


There is at once too much reading and too little. The great modern dailies are harming the minds of metropolitan peoples. Multitudes read from sheer mental laziness. Journalism must therefore be sensational in an evil manner. Even magazine literature scours worlds for fresh chaff illustrated by "lightning artists." These influences, and the infinite flood of matter, make genuine reading among many impossible. For reading, in its real sense, is a deliberate process by which written thought is transferred to the mind, and there stored and assimilated. All this involves power of Will. But power of Will is a rare possession in these days of multitudinous distractions. Hence it is that true reading is almost a lost art. How shall this lost art be regained? By development of that reason-forged but magic gift, Attention.

" Read not to contradict nor to believe, but to weigh and consider," said the wise and " woodeny " Bacon. " To weigh and consider "—that is the open sesame of right reading. In order to acquire these abilities the following directions will serve :


Exercise No. I. Procure any well-written book on any subject worth knowing. Read the title with great care. State in your own language exactly what you suppose the title to mean. Look up the definitions of all words. Examples : " History of the United States." What is history? What is a written history? What is the difference between the two kinds of " history"? What is the main idea in "United States "? How did this name originate?

Now read the author's name. Before proceeding further, memorize an outline of his life. Ascertain his place in letters. What value are you to put upon his work.

This done, read with some care the table of contents. You ought now to have the general drift of the book, together with its purpose. If these do not appear, take another book and repeat the above exercises. Continue this exercise during life.

Exercise No. 2. Presuming that, with such examination, you wish to go on, read the preface very care-fully. Having finished it, ask yourself what the author has here said. Make sure that you know. Then ask, Why has he said this in the preface? Did he need a preface? Does this preface really pre-face, so far as you can now judge? Make this a permanent régime in reading.

Exercise No. 3. If the book has an introduction, read that with the greatest attention. An author is sometimes misunderstood in many pages because his introduction has not been read. At the end of its reading, outline from memory what it has brought be-fore you. Now ask, again, Why should he have writ-ten that introduction, or what he has written here as an introduction? Very likely, you are at this time as ready to lay the book aside as you may become later. Make this exercise a permanent part of serious reading.

Exercise No. ˘. To make sure about this, read attentively the first twenty-five pages of the book. In these pages do you see anything new, anything interesting, anything of value to you? If nothing new, interesting or valuable gets to the fore in twenty-five pages, you are probably ready to sell that book at a large discount. The rule, however, is not infallible.

Reading is frequently like gold-mining the richest veins are not always readily discovered. Some of George Eliot's works require a yoke of oxen, so to speak, to drag the mind into them ; but once in, it can-not escape her spell. Many books which are perennially acknowledged cannot be rigidly subjected to these tests. Something, too, depends upon the reader's mind. If the mind "adores" "awfully sweet" dresses and "perfectly elegant" parties, its judgments may be taken with a "lot" of "just the tiniest" allowance. These directions are not dealing with the "punk" order of intellect, nor the "green corn" era of criticism. They have in view the ordinary run of minds and the above-average grade of books. If twenty-five pages of a book do not get hold of a good mind, the author has done phenomenally fine work, or else he isn't worth reading. Make this exercise permanent.

Exercise No. 5. Supposing, now, that you resolve to go on with the volume in hand, it will be necessary, for our present purpose, to return to the first sentence. Read that sentence with exceeding care. What is its subject? — its predicate?— its object? What is the meaning of each word? If an abstract-thought, put this thought into your own language. Think it, resolutely and carefully and clearly. If it is an object-thought, stop now, and, closing the eyes, call up a mental picture of the object. If the word expresses action, ask what kind of action. Think the act so as to get a mental picture of it, if possible. If the sentence is involved, take as much of it as expresses a complete thought exhausted by ideas of "being," or "condition," or "action." Treat this as your first sentence according to the above directions. Then proceed with the next complete thought of the sentence, and so on until you have in this manner read the sentence as a whole. Then read the sentence again, put the thoughts together, and get into the mind a complete view of the entire statement. Always translate the author's thoughts into your own language. Do not memorize, but THINK.

Proceed in this way through the first paragraph. Then state in your own manner the connected chain of thought thus far presented.

The next day, write, without reading again, the sub-stance of this first paragraph.

Continue such attentive and analytic reading until you have mastered the first chapter. Now put aside all writings hitherto made, and from memory write a connected statement of the substance of that chapter.

Proceed with the succeeding sentences, paragraphs and chapters. If these directions are pursued, few books will require a second reading. And one good book well read is better than a dozen read as books ordinarily are read.

Resolve permanently upon this kind of reading.

Such exercises will prove of immense value, because they are based on certain laws of mind. The eye ac-quires great facility in reading, and the reader is apt to content himself with whole but vague pictures of groups of ideas presented. In order that the thought contained in the printed page may be really obtained, it is necessary to break up these wholes and to put their parts into clear light. This requires attention to de-tails, which in turn demands a distinct understanding of the meaning of words. We may catch the general thought of a sentence without knowing clearly what some of its words mean, and thus really miss, perhaps, the best part of our reading.

" Suppose I look out of my window," says Hill in " Elements of Psychology," " and see a black horse running swiftly. The whole picture, as presented by the sense of vision, constitutes one single image. It remains one and single until I have occasion to de-scribe it in words. The moment I attempt to do so, an analytic process or process of resolution into parts is necessary. I must name the animal ` horse,' his color 'black,' his act 'running,' his speed ' swiftly,' and I must indicate whether it is a definite or an indefinite black horse that runs, and so must use an article, 'a' or 'the.' Putting all together, I say 'A black horse is running swiftly,' a sentence in which my one visual image is broken up by five distinctions, each expressed in a separate word. There is truth in the proverb, ` No one knows a thing until he can tell it.' "

The object of putting thought into one's own words is also seen in the fact that the mere study of words, as the above writer indicates, is of little value. Hence in real reading it is always necessary to secure mental images, or mental conceptions clear-cut and pronounced, of "being," " condition" or " action" involved in each statement read.

Exercise No. 6. While reading any book worth the while, mark striking or useful passages, and, as you proceed, make an index on the rear fly leaf. No mat-ter if the book has a printed index; your own will prove better for your purpose.

Exercise No. 7. Analyze chapters, about as you go on, and mark and number or letter the points made.

At the close of reading the chapter, review these points and fix in memory. This will facilitate Exercise No. 5.

Exercise No. 8. While some friend reads aloud, practise mental noting of the points made by the author, retaining them for a given number of pages. Then state them consecutively while the reader reviews to correct your errors. Continue this exercise indefinitely.

Exercise No. 9. Repeat the above exercise with conversations with the reader, making sure that both thoroughly understand the matter in hand. On the following day, review this work together from memory. Then continue as before. Practise these exercises in-definitely.

Exercise No. 10. If an author's name is not a sufficient guaranty for his statements, or if his book is written from an evident point of view or with a possible bias, and he is clearly bent on " making his case," bring to the reading of his work the interrogative attitude of mind. Do not accept him carelessly. Compel him to " make his case " fairly. Verify his alleged facts. See that his references are correct and rightly interpreted. Detect flaws in his arguments. Read him from his point of view as modified by your own. Make sure that your point of view is good. Therefore, be open to his convictions. Nevertheless, antagonize him in a fair field. Be not hasty to contradict, nor to surrender. Tomorrow what you deny may be truth, what you accept may be false. Read resolutely to gather what he can contribute to your stock of facts, of realities, of sound reasoning, of sentiment, of life, of power,

In connection with the foregoing instructions on attention in reading, certain parts of Bacon's essay " On Studies " will be of interest :

" Studies serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability. Their chief use for delight is in privateness and retiring; for ornament, is in discourse; and for ability, is in the judgment and disposition of business. For expert men can execute, and perhaps judge of particulars, one by one ; but the general counsels, and the plots and the marshalling of affairs, come best from those who are learned. . . . Crafty men condemn studies ; simple men admire them ; and wise men use them. . . . Read not to contradict and confuse; nor to believe and take for granted ; nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider. Histories make men wise; poets witty ; the mathematics subtile ; natural philosophy deep ; moral grave ; logic and rhetoric able to contend.

"Reading maketh a full man ; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. And therefore, if a man write little he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit; and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know that he doth not."

Beware what Ben Jonson called a "humor " :

"A Humour is the bias of the mind,

By which, with violence, 'tis one way inclined; It makes our action lean on one side still; And, in all changes, that way bends the Will."

The work here suggested will be tedious at first, and it demands time and patience. As it proceeds, how-ever, it will become more and more easy and delightful. Its justification is the double purpose in hand in all these pages : right reading and power of persistent Will. A resolute sense of willing must therefore be preserved from first to last. Learn to read in the Mood of the emphatic personality. Your Will shall then dissolve books, and mastered books shall culture the finest Will.

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