As a consequence of feedback on this blog, and on book reviews, a thought has occurred to me. Namely, how to read to best effect? When I touch on something that is close to someone’s experience, that seems to be helpful, but mostly I’ll be off the mark for most people – I’m bound to be. But I’d like to think I could still be useful. I’ve noticed that I derive benefit from books that other people find wide of the mark (profound thanks to Lorna who triggered this whole line of thought.) And I just read a book on Zen (thank you Jo!) that, while not entirely chiming with me, was profoundly useful.
Reading is not just a case of stuffing words into your head to see what sticks. We are largely taught to accept the authority of the author (clue is in the name and all that). There is a tendency to offer as fact that which is really opinion, and that muddies the waters too. It occurs to me that there are things I do when I’m reading that it might be useful to share.
Firstly, I watch for fact statements that are really opinions and mentally re-label them, and reject or accept according to my own tastes. It is a bit of a faff, but gets easier with practice. It makes it possible, for example, to read texts from people of other religions without getting bogged down or grumpy. After all, it’s just someone’s opinions, I can take it or leave it.
Secondly, I look for the underlying ideas. I’ve been reading a lot about prayer in different faiths – the surface stuff is of no use to me at all, what I’m looking for is what underpins, what the core concepts are, what the logic is. This means some picking out, a lot of pondering, but it does mean I get useful things out of books that really were not meant for me at all.
Thirdly I have no qualms arguing with a book. If I read something that totally jars with my beliefs, experiences or expectations, I’ll sit with that and try to figure out why. It may be that I was in error in some way, in which case I learn. It may be an opinions issue. It may be that I decide the thing I just read would be wrong for me, in which case it’s then down to me to try and figure out what would suit me better.
Here’s a case in point: I loved Fiona Tinker’s Pathworking through Poetry book. I wasn’t drawn to most of the poems she used and wouldn’t work with them, and disagreed with many of her interpretations, but that was fine because the core ideas were so useful, I could see how to take them and run with them, there was so much good material that our differences of opinion seemed like no problem at all.
Books are a bit like people: Opinionated, working to an agenda that is not your own, unreliable, sometimes wrong. Like people, you have to get in there, make a relationship, find out where the good bits are, take with a pinch of salt where appropriate, run off in totally the opposite direction when needs be, and so forth. Books are written by people and people are flawed and messy things, and most of us will see things differently to at least someone else.
The trick to getting the best out of reading, is not to submit to the authority of a book. Question it. Check its facts. Test its assertions. Throw it in the recycling bin if it lets you down too badly whilst quietly nicking the couple of bits you thought were useful. Take it as a model of what not to do (cough, Death of a Druid Prince, cough).
You have to get a fair way into History and Literature as academic subjects before anyone starts teaching you how to read critically or suggests you can argue with books. This is a shame. Especially when you consider the authority imbued in religious books, and those are stories made by people too, and all the same things need to apply with them, as well.