How to Read a Book (Part 1)
As we come into a new year the air is filled with chatter of what we are resolved to do. Perhaps your list includes the traditional diet, budget, and exercise. What about a book? How about several of them? Would you consider in 2012 recovering the lost art of reading books?
America has become an illiterate society. While it is true that most of us can phonetically pronounce combinations of letters and attach definitions to them, which strictly speaking is the act of reading, most of us do not devote time to reading meaningful content. If we are not illiterate in the strictest sense, I would argue that we are at least a tautological society (look it up!). Due to Twitter, texting, and Facebook words have become little more than smoke signals of the mundane, “Me thirsty”, “Me miss you”, “Me about to eat”, “Why you care?”
In literate cultures people are connoisseurs of well communicated thoughts, structured arguments, and compelling themes. A century ago we explored the world with words. We once discussed the meaning of things. Now we care only to discuss what Snooki said or what Gaga wore. We producing more words than ever, but saying nothing at all. Twitter handles 250 million “tweets” per day. That means we are writing the equivalent of a 10 million page book every 24 hours. We are chirping about everything but are we learning? Are we adding to knowledge? If Twitter is a reflection of what America is thinking, we have lost our minds.
As Americans we have always believed ourselves to be the great saviors. Over the last thirty years our concerns have become environmental. Save the whales. Save the ozone. Save the polar bear. Save the owl. I propose that in 2012 our theme be, “Save the brain, read a book.” Let us not just read one of them, but lots of them. Yet how do we do something we have not done for so long? How do we read a book?
Finding the Good Books
If it has been awhile you may find that good books have gone the way of the VHS tape. They are rare finds indeed. Yet they do exist. It is also important to note that good books are expensive. The problem is that bad books are also expensive. If we are not to break our resolution concerning the budget in 2012 we must be careful then that we do not waste our funds on bad books. If books were priced according to content it would make our quest much easier. If this were the case we would probably find that most of the books that meet us in the doorway of our favorite bookstores would then be the cheapest, probably worth no more than 10 cents. Because we are not discerning we have become the easy prey of marketing. Publishers are counting on the fact that you will immediately break the cardinal rule of reading. You will judge a book by its cover.
Because I have been burned by the cover more than once allow me to share my quick list of how I weed out the bad books. I do not read books by actors or athletes. Sorry Tim Tebow. I do not read a book by a politician unless he or she is OUT of office. I read very few autobiographies. We are not honest about ourselves. I do not read books with warriors, wizards, dragons, horses, flowers, people kissing, or people holding swords on the cover (that’s just me). I do not read books that I know good and well that the people on the back cover who have endorsed them have not read. One good way to weed this out is to go down the aisle of the bookstore and turn an entire row of books over. You will probably find the same people endorse them all. Pastor/authors are notorious for this. This is why I do not read very many books written by pastors. Yet, if I ever publish a book, please read it (appease the hypocrite in me)!
Read books about meaningful historical events. Read books about people who changed things. Read books about critical issues. Read books that offer various viewpoints. Read books written by people who are nothing like you. Read books that will make you angry. Read books that will make you think. Read books that are not only endorsed, but are critically peer reviewed. There are countless internet forums that would offer such reviews. By peer review I mean books that are purposefully subjected to the experts in the applicable field. If we are to read great books we must learn rule #1, Oprah was a talk show host. Jerry Springer is also a talk show host. Their purpose is first and foremost to entertain, not critically review books. Oprah discussed everything but was an expert in nothing. Her opinions chase the wind. If a historical book happened to make it on Oprah, but is not being kicked around by other historians this should be a warning sign. If it was not worth an expert’s time it is not worth yours.
If you want to find good books do the most obvious thing, ask the people who read them. Ask your pastor, your child’s English teacher, or the guy at work who is always reading on his lunch break. An odd habit of mine is going into university and seminary bookstores and seeing what books the professors are requiring for their classes. I once despised these shelves, but I have found that when I am not reading a book for a grade there is a lot less pressure and I enjoy it even more.
If we are to be good readers we will find that it is important to read the boring parts, the preface, the introduction, the footnotes/endnotes, and/or the bibliography. I will speak to the preface and the introduction later, but I have often found that the most important place to find good books is within good books. If you find yourself reading books without footnotes, endnotes, and bibliographies realize that you are reading unsubstantiated, unsupported opinions. Good books will be full of notes. This means the author has spent a great deal of time researching his topic before he brought the information to you. Books without notes may be about interesting things and they may be written by someone you count to be an interesting person, but in the end a book without notes is nothing more than a field guide to finding Sasquatch. It is a misleading search for nothing. Books with notes will lead you to other critical topics and intelligent authors. If you read the notes you may find yourself going to places you have never been before – the deeper shelves near the back of the bookstore. You may also find yourself in a long lost city of Atlantis of American culture, the library.
(to be continued)