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5 Personal Rules for Reading Disagreeable Books
Books are not valuable because they are true. Books are valuable because they help you think thoughts you wouldn’t otherwise think on your own.
No book is wholly right. Then again, no book is wholly wrong. All of us have biases and blindspots, prejudices and predilections. We are all—writers and readers alike—creatures of partial perspective. It’s the best we’ve got.
Reading profitably requires we recognize these limitations and compensate for them. And that sort of compensation becomes especially relevant when reading books that conflict with our existing assumptions. With that in mind, I thought I might share my five personal rules for reading disagreeable books.
1. Be Generous
Try to understand the author’s message in the best possible light. This is just another version of the golden rule: I want to be understood; therefore, I try to understand others. Matt Bianco of the CiRCE Institute put it this way:
Learning how to read means going beyond decoding the symbols on the page. It means learning how to submit to the author and understand what she is saying. And doing that is love for neighbor. Learning how to read well is learning how to love your neighbor.
I don’t want to mischaracterize somebody’s views by amplifying the worst part of their position. Instead, I want to focus on the best characterization of their ideas. Which—selfishly speaking—could be the only version of the book worth my time.
Several additional considerations flow from this first one.
2. Recognize the Writer’s Context
Part of placing a writer’s work in the best light is appreciating by what lights they were (or are) working. It is easy to look back (or around) from my present vantage and judge authors whose views do not align with my own.
Critical engagement is paramount. The problem comes when I next dismiss authors for their apparent deficiencies. It seems to me that it’s better to go ahead and note the problems in a book and then see what remains of worth, especially given the context in which the book was written.
In every situation the writer’s context will have influenced their argument. At some level my argument is with the values and assumptions of that context, not the author. And in other cases the author’s views contain seeds that can grow beyond their context; it’s helpful to look for those seeds, rather than merely damning the soil they came from.
3. Read to Learn, not Refute
“Men read by way of revenge,” said Thomas Paine. We see it today in the gotcha games and what-about feedfillers of social media—not to mention drive-by retail reviews of books in which the shooter has either never read the book or only deeply enough to float objections.
It reminds me of something the seventh-century saint, Maximus the Confessor, said at the start of his Four Hundred Chapters on Love:
If someone reads this or any other book whatever not for the sake of spiritual profit but to hunt for phrases to reproach the author so that he might then set himself up in his own opinion as wiser than he, such a person will never receive any profit of any kind.
The principle applies beyond spiritual reading to historical, political, philosophical, scientific, economic, and business reading as well—everything, really. If I read to refute rather than learn, I will gain far less than I might.
4. Recognize My Own Limitations
Beyond entertainment, the main reason I read is to learn, and as I often tell my kids: Knowledge is the enemy of learning. The hardest person to teach is the one who thinks they already know.
If I confront a book to poke holes in it, I will primarily succeed in using my existing knowledge to block the acquisition of something new—along with likely missing at least some of what the author is trying to say.
Instead, it would be better to recognize my perspective is only partial and could thus be supplemented by what the author is presenting, even if I find myself in diametric opposition. Again, to be selfish, why else am I spending time on it?
5. Nevertheless, Be Critical
While I want to note what is good in a book, I also want to note what is not so good. A critical reading can expose flaws in a book which might help me understand the author’s view—and my own—better.
Books are not valuable because they are true, though that’s nice. Books are valuable because they help you think thoughts you wouldn’t otherwise think on your own.
But if I am trying to understand the world and views about it better, then it’s worth acknowledging neither the author’s words, nor my own understanding, are sacred. I have blinders and biases. And so does the author. We both deserve critical engagement. I should let the author challenge me, and I should challenge the author.
Identifying flaws—even if such identifications are also prone to flaws—hopefully inches me in the right direction. And selfish me again: that sounds like something worth my time, even if I’m not a fan of the book I’m reading.
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