If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.
If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.
A story of expectations met and unmet, in two parts.
Part the first. I spoke in front of a group of students at a local continuation high school this morning. The original topic was my career (what do I do? what do I like/dislike about it? etc.) and my career path (what’s my background? education? how’d I get to where I am?) but I never quite got there. I mostly ended up talking about economics as I was speaking to an economics class, nominally, and the program coordinator kept prompting me on that subject.
I introduced two economic concepts to the assembled: TNSTAAFL/opportunity cost, and subjective value theory. I tried to apply them to “real life” to make them tangible and interesting to the audience. I talked about how everyone got suckered into the Housing Bubble, which cost a lot of people their homes, their personal finances, their jobs and sometimes more. I suggested that a person who understood that TNSTAAFL wouldn’t have gotten suckered in because he would’ve recognized the bubble for what it was and played it safe as he could. Subjective value theory I used to explain why we have an economy and why people work jobs, to serve each other’s subjective needs. I encouraged the class to think about their own values and to pursue them, and recognize that when people tell them what to do they’re simply telling them they should follow subjective values other than their own. I tried to highlight the role opportunity cost plays in pursuing subjective values, for example, people often get into traps such as pursuing money to provide for their families in such a way that they don’t get to spend time with their families. This opportunity cost is forgotten or ignored.
I also covered time value of money and the function of credit during a brief tangent, prompted by the program coordinator emphasizing the importance of personal finance principles.
The instructor goaded the students into applauding me before I had even spoke, as some kind of polite welcome for someone who had taken the time to stand before them and pontificate on a subject they cared little about. I said, “We’ll see if you still feel like applauding me at the end” and then began my talk. At the end of it, as the students rose to leave at the sound of the Pavlovian bell, one of the young men closest to me in the front of the room turned to his classmate and said in a quite intentionally audible way, “Thank GOD that is over!”
The morning’s events completely met my expectations and as a result, I was satisfied with myself when I myself left. I had entered a prison, whose inmates were being held against their will, by force of law, who had been assembled before me because they had no other choice save punishment and who had little to no interest in the subjects I had been invited to speak about before them. You certainly can’t blame a person in such circumstances for being disengaged, melodramatic and at times downright hostile.
If you put me in a cage I’d be uncomfortable and not in a friendly mood, either.
I didn’t expect to touch anyone, change a life or spark a fire or interest in anyone for the subjects I spoke about (economics, careers, my career, me) and if I happened to do that despite my intentions, that’s fine. I expected to go in there, treat the poor beasts with respect and maybe a bit of sympathy, having once been caged in a similar manner myself, and deliver my thoughts as articulately and coherently as I could. I expected to get practice speaking before an audience and trying, not necessarily succeeding, at making a foreign subject engaging or relatable for them.
In this, I met my expectations and so I believe I succeeded and thus I felt satisfied.
Part the second. For some time now I have watched in despair as a previously favorite blog of mine has gone into seemingly terminal decline. What was once a source of original thinking, unique coverage and respectable ideological consistency has in time become a haven for hacks and simpletons, its content hollowed-out and refocused on a few topics I just don’t have much interest in. The purveyor of the site has taken numerous opportunities, on his blog and his new webcast radio show, to demonstrate qualities of his personality I’ve found surprising, disappointing and at times reprehensible.
My distress with this reached a fever pitch early this week when a long-awaited debate on the subject of “intellectual property” was joined by the purveyor and another popular blogger on the subject. While the purveyor’s behavior leading up to the discussion gave me no reason to believe it’d be an intelligent, objective attempt at sussing out the truth by the two parties, but rather much evidence that it would be a battle of wills and ego characterized by willful blindness of reason and savage emotional assaults on each respective victim, the final product was so shockingly extreme in terms of all the undesirable qualities I suspected it would contain that I almost couldn’t believe these two adults had allowed themselves to be recorded, their outrage to be shared in front of a public audience of strangers.
I found myself so disappointed with the whole thing. It was anti-intellectual and truly uncivilized, the kind of stuff blood feuds at made of (gusto about sacred honor and the like that can never be satiated by way of reasonable argument). I knew both men were capable of a bit of underhandedness, but at least in the past the underhandedness seemed to have some kind of productive point. This time, after I finished sitting through two and a half hours of two middle-aged men calling each other names and screaming at one another, waiting for a point, I realized too late that there was none beyond sharing pure hate and distrust.
Who was to blame for my dissatisfaction in this instance? Initially, I found myself disgusted with these two people for subjecting me to this idiocy. “How dare they!” Then I thought about it some more. They are who they are. Their current skills and capabilities with regards to interpersonal communication and intellectual reasoning are aspects of their identity that exist as they do, whether I find them appealing or satisfying or not. I expected them to work hard to please me in their debating efforts (despite, I should add, much evidence that they were capable of no such thing) and when they didn’t live up to my expectations, I was disappointed.
Not by them, but by myself. For expecting people to live to serve my intellectual and emotional needs.
In the first part, I participated in something that could easily be seen as a disastrous waste of everybody’s time. Yet, I walked away from it in a positive state of mind. In the second part, I witnessed a true social tragedy and felt depressed and upset. Both circumstances were undesirable, but my reaction was different each time because my expectations were different.
Expectations can glorify our existence or cast the light of our lives down a dark abyss. I hope to remind myself of this fact more often.
How To Read A Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading (buy on Amazon.com)
by Mortimer J. Adler, Charles Van Doren, published 1972
A “valueprax” review always serves two purposes: to inform the reader, and to remind the writer. Find more reviews by visiting the Virtual Library.
“Literate ignoramuses who have read too widely and not well”
HTRAB seeks to be a remedy for those described above who have read many books but understood little of any of them. As the authors define it, good reading is active reading, that is, it involves note-taking and and highlighting (write in your books to make them truly yours) and question-asking, with the ultimate question being, “What has the author tried to communicate to me and, assuming I’ve understood him, what do I think of what he has said?” A book is an absent teacher– it is ultimately your responsibility to answer on your own and for yourself the questions you might pose to it.
The 4 levels of reading
The authors set out four levels of reading, which are hierarchical in terms of complexity and skill required, and cumulative, in the sense that each level includes the skills and complexity of those below it while adding unique qualities of its own. The levels are:
Elementary reading is exactly what it sounds like, the most basic level of reading that all people learning to read initially experience. At this level of reading, one begins to comprehend the letters and words they form as being connected to or representative of concepts, actions, etc. Unfortunately, at this level of reading, comprehension doesn’t go much beyond this and even more tragically, few readers ever seem to graduate beyond this level, even during and after time spent in college. For elementary readers, books are full of words one must step and stumble over, but little meaning is ever found in them.
Inspectional reading is the beginning of true “reading for understanding”, which is the kind of reading HTRAB is primarily focused on. Inspectional reading is both a level of sophistication and a specific tool that can be used to heighten overall understanding and reading skill for one who “reads well.” It is a skill in the sense that an inspectional reader is able to draw out of a book its essential meaning and something about the way in which the author goes about it (as opposed to an elementary reader, who never quite gets that far, missing the meaning forest for the crowd of symbolic trees). It is a specific tool in that inspectional reading entails a deliberate process by which a reader examines the preface and introductory material of the book (or the first few pages) and the conclusion or epilogue (or last few pages) in detail, surveys the table of contents (if available) and index to get a feel for the overall structure, order and topics covered in the book and then jumps around at random through the middle of the book reading passages and pages of interest that appear to be central to the author’s theme and argument. In this way, an inspectional reader quickly learns what the book is about, how the author goes about elaborating upon it and, perhaps most importantly, whether or not it’s a message and artifice worthy of the readers attention and time.
Without this process, or at a minimum, familiarizing oneself with the table of contents, a reader who starts at the first page and tries to plow through is only making his reading more challenging because he is attempting to learn what he is attempting to understand (the topic and structure), at the same time that he is trying to understand it.
The three primary questions answered by an inspectional (summary) reading are:
Tools to prepare you for reading well
The authors suggest four essential questions to be asked by an active reader:
These are questions the reader should have always in the back of his mind as he reads, and which he should be able to answer confidently by the time he finishes.
The authors also recommend several techniques for “making a book your own”:
Several other techniques and methods are discussed in HTRAB which are critical to reading well. One is to study the title of the book and learn what you can from it. Authors usually take care in naming their books and the titles give significant clues about what the book is and is not about. Another is to practice stating the unity of the book– in a sentence or a paragraph at most, explain what kind of book it is, what it is about and list the devices the author employs to explore that theme. A final tool is to keep in mind the author’s intentions at all times– every book is written ostensibly to solve a problem, which the book is supposed to be a solution for, which begs the questions, “What is the problem the author wanted to solve by writing his book?” and “What solution does he offer to the problem in writing his book?”
The process of analytical reading
The third level of reading, and the most critical for all who wish to learn to read well, is the analytical level. At the analytical level, the primary intention of the reader is to be thorough, complete and to read for understanding. Some of the tools previously discussed are, in fact, part of the analytical reading toolkit. In total, the process or “rules” for analytical reading are:
I made a note of some other helpful tips for reading well analytically:
Bringing it all together: syntopical reading
Syntopical reading is the reading of multiple books, with similar topics, in order to synthesize a “conversation” amongst and between the authors. The beauty of this method of reading is it allows one to pit perspectives and arguments from differing backgrounds and even differing time periods into one intellectual commons. It also allows the reader to get a “full measure” of the literary world’s treatment of a given subject. It can be performed by either multi-inspectional reading of various titles, or multi-analytical reading of those same titles.
The steps of a successful syntopical reading are:
Despite my efforts at being analytical, this review was something of an inspectional survey itself. One thing I took away from my reading is that I do a lot of the things mentioned in the analytical reading process, although I actually neglect a lot of the inspectional reading elements and now realize their value. The reading also confirmed some of my biases by throwing into stark relief the inadequacies of many other people’s reading efforts I am aware of, either from direct personal experience or via interaction with their “interpretations” of ideas gleaned from things they have read. It is somewhat dismaying to realize how few intellectual opponents would qualify as “well read” analytical book users, and how inadequate their attempts at criticism are in light of this. One would be more satisfied to think one’s opponents were both more competent, and more honest, than that.
At the end of HTRAB, the authors provide a number of special tips for the reading of specific kinds of works (poems and plays, history, social science, hard science and math, etc.), as well as a bibliography of “great books” (similar to that found here) and a short essay on what reading well can do for an individual. Aside from the hopefully true suggestion that the mind-exercise provided by reading well can actually help one sustain the vitality and quality of their life even into old age, the discussion of the growing relationship one can develop with truly “great” books is comforting, as well. I think for me personally this passage resonated because of my own experiences reading what I refer to as “acts of philosophy” even when their subject matter is not philosophy per se (endlessly re-readable books like Security Analysis and Human Action which seem to give up new secrets and ideas with each new pass through).
Despite my epistemological misgivings about HTRAB (for example, could HTRAB, in and of itself, assist a person currently capable of nothing more than elementary reading to rise above themselves?), I do believe it itself is a title worth revisiting in the future. My first foray amongst its pages was admittedly quick and inspectional, and there were many passages I will admit I skipped just so I could get to the end and get this up on my blog. It may or may not be a “great” book (I believe I will suspend judgment on that for now), it is undoubtedly a “good” book with much to recommend it and I would encourage anyone who is interested, as well as my future self, to pick it up and give it a read.
Nothing important comes into being overnight; even grapes and figs need time to ripen. If you say that you want a fig now, I will tell you to be patient. First, you must allow the tree to flower, then put forth fruit; then you have to wait until the fruit is ripe. So if the fruit of a fig tree is not brought to maturity instantly or in an hour, how do you expect the human mind to come to fruition, so quickly and easily?