Deliberately reading a book

Of this, I approve. One should show respect for the gate that leads to the hidden truths! If high school kids had to perform a reverent invocation to be allowed through the school gates, they might learn more. Well, better late than never!

Still reading Talent is overrated by Geoff Colvin. It is not hard to read, at least for me. Obviously this varies, and I want to talk about this first.

Mortimer Adler writes in his (no longer so famous) book How to Read a Book that you won’t learn much from a book that is easy to read. That means you already know most of what the author knows, and already think the same way the author does. But if the book is hard to read, there may be two reasons for this: Either the author writes badly, or he is so far above you in knowledge or understanding that you have to struggle to get up to his level.

This, ironically, equates with what Colvin writes about one aspect of “deliberate practice”: It must be in the “learning zone” between the comfort zone and the panic zone. If you stay down in the comfort zone where you already know how to do things, you may have a good time, but you don’t grow. If you go too far above your current skill level, you enter the panic zone where you don’t even know where to begin. You must stay between these to make progress.

Back to Mortimer Adler, who I hope will become more relevant now that Kindle and its competitors have caused a great renaissance of the book. If an author writes badly and you are already on his level, you should be able to see through the bad writing and judge his skill, at which point you may just as well give up on the book (unless you are tasked to review it, I suppose).

But if you are below the author’s level (in that particular field), you have to read the book systematically to extract not only the factual information but the way of thinking which separates the teacher from the student – the book is the teacher, in this case. Most of Adler’s book consists of detailed descriptions of how to go about this. It is systematic, it is a lot of work, and it is not particularly fun. Yes, that means it is a “deliberate practice” as defined by Colvin and (more importantly) the scientists he popularizes, notably Anders Ericsson. In this case, a deliberate practice of thinking.

If you are above the author’s level, you should be able to understand it handily even if the writing is less than perfect. Of course, horrible writing can make even the simplest thought obscure, as Esaias Tegner famously remarks: “The obscurely spoken is the obscurely thought” (“Det dunkelt sagda är det dunktelt tänkta”). However, as mentioned above, the converse is also true: Something may sound obscure to you because your thinking is obscure. So if you are an expert, people need to be really obscure for you not to understand them.

Since I am not an expert in the science of skill development, I think we can safely say that Geoff Colvin writes quite clearly. Since I don’t have a problem following the text when written clearly, he writes at a level close to my current understanding. (He probably has to “dumb down” to do so, of course.) So if you can read me, you should easily be able to read Colvin.

Adler is another matter entirely. He’s so high, high above me. Despite the clarity of his writing, I need to work deliberately to absorb his book. Perhaps I should give it another go, now that I have seen the same thing from a different angle.

2 thoughts on “Deliberately reading a book

  1. We are a not-for-profit educational organization, founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery–three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos–lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading, on one DVD. A must for libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

    I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are–we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

    ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

    Thank you,

    Max Weismann

    • Thank you for the link. The video clip explains quite well that part of my entry which relates to the book. It is a pleasure to see that the work of Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren is still being continued today. This understanding is essential especially for all who seek to educate themselves throughout their lives, and the earlier in one’s adult life one can gain this insight, the more effective it will be.

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