In short (and imprecisely phrased), one creates a dialogue between the new book and one’s existing knowledge in order to form a new gestalt. Of course, it certainly does help to have that previous knowledge, ie to have done a lot of reading already.
I like this article, for it covers many ideas that I have thought about over the years since I left university and began “using” what I learned (maybe that should also be in quotation marks!) to earn a living.
One conclusion I did come to some time ago is that in university one is strongly encouraged to consume books, rather than read them — and I blame professors who assign far too much on their reading lists rather than discussing, in depth, a smaller corpus of relevant writings. Perhaps they are not able to conduct such discussions and hide their discomfort in a flurry of required readings. Equally possible is a belief that one must be “familiar” (whatever that actually means) with the literature on a given topic, although the boundaries of what constitutes familiarity can be stretched quite far indeed. But, whatever the reason, we are all, as Mead points out, guilty of consuming in one way or another. I have often wondered what would have happened if I had written my dissertation and, then, included a bibliography that contained only those works that I really interacted with, rather than all the many, many books & articles I consulted. I suspect that the reaction would have been one loud guffaw from the exam committee and a demand for revisions — despite the fact that had no objections with my thesis, evidence and arguments. I would not, I think, have passed muster without showing that I “knew”, even if only in passing, the huge number of works written on the subject I had been looking at.
As an aside, I recently reviewed a new study in European diplomatic history for a journal. The work itself was extremely interesting and the research very impressive. But I concluded the review by observing that its length and the slow pace of the author in assembling his argument (based largely on primary sources) meant that the book would likely go unrecognised. Too few people, I argued, would be able to acknowledge, or take the time to enjoy, the real scholarship that it represented.
BTW, thank’s for the review of Washington’s Crossing. I have been contemplating buying that book. I think I will do that now.
This same method can also be used for music. You can listen passively, with the music lapping over you, or you can listen actively, following themes, sensing where the harmony is leading and so on. As you say, the active approach is not so common. This post on my blog gets around to talking about active listening towards the end:
In the digital age, information is ubiquitous but where shall we find wisdom? The answer, of course, is in great books, both fiction and nonfiction. The question is how can we learn to read these books deeply and thoughtfully.
Professor Mead provides some sage advice on how to read history; but how do we come to maximize what we learn from fiction? One excellent source is Harold Bloom’s (dare I mention his name?) fascinating “How to Read and Why.”
More about the book can be found here,
Another interesting take on the subject is Italo Calvino’s “Why Read the Classics?”
Additional information here,
A similar approach to what Professor Mead advocates to successfully encounter history books also works with fiction. One way to start is to think about what other authors who wrote contemporaneously with the author you are reading had to say.
For example, when I think Kafka’s “Metamorphisis” I always think of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and “Lord Jim.” They were written within 20 years of each other. I also think of “The Brothers Karamazov” written about 20 years earlier. All of these great books are reflections on alienation.
It is also interesting to ponder how different writers influence each other. One of Bloom’s great insights is that many great authors struggle against the legacy of great authors who came before them. Untangling how these authors influence each other provides great insights into the themes they are trying to explore.
Fortunately, in the world of literature, we don’t have to figure everything out for ourselves; there is a huge and fascinating body of literary criticism for most of the great books of the world.
Professor Mead is right; everyone should read Milton’s “Paradise Lost” but either before or after they do, everyone should read Stanley Fish’s brilliant criticism, “Surprised by Sin.” The greatest novel ever written is Cervantes’ “Don Quixote;” if you haven’t read it, you are missing something that will enrich your life. But either before or after you read it, you should also read Thomas Mann’s criticism of the book or even better the fascinating take on Don Quixote penned by the Basque critic and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno
One other thing comes to mind; just as young people today tend not to be great readers, they also tend not to be great writers. It is impossible to write well without being well-read.
Professor Mead proves the point; the reason that he is such a prolific writer of wonderful prose is because he reads scores or even hundreds of books every year.
Nicely said, and this used to be the purpose of a liberal arts education: to provide students with the sort of passing acquaintance with the seminal events and books of the Western tradition so that they could critically read and think. This background knowledge of events and texts enabled one to engage in the conversation on one’s own wits.
While such an education is profoundly “useless” as far as the market goes, it does provide several nice upsides. One is able to educate himself and enjoy so much of the art, literature, architecture, and thought that flows from this tradition. Having tasted puddings with many common themes, one acquires a taste for and aptitude for recognizing the many variations of these themes in other works.
One is also able to triage the flood of information. A thorough engagement with works and events of substance provides one with an intellectual touchstone with which he can separate out those works that warrant, and reward, careful consideration from those that might be useful for information or amusement or simply useless altogether.
These qualities help free one from the passing fads and fashions. The strangeness of other times and peoples emerge more clearly, as does the strangeness of one’s one own time. Hence the liberality of the liberal arts education.
Wig, I really enjoyed your comment. I am a sophmore double majoring in English and Creative Writing. My parents think I’ve lost my mind. We are reading The Metamorphosis now. I am also taking a German literature course and trying to read Mann’s Magic Mountain, Death in Venice and Confessions of Felix Krull in the original German. It’s slow and tough going but I am getting the hang of reading German.
I will look for Harold Bloom’s book in the library.
How To Read Classics, ranging from Herodotus’ “Histories” to Plutarch’s “Lives” to Luo Guanzhong’s “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” to Grant’s “Memoirs”…
1. Note in passing that they are all seem to be simply series of stories that go “some guy who was famous at the time takes tens of thousands of infantry and thousands of cavalry [for Grant, add a few hundred field guns] and takes over such-and-such a city or region.” Allow these passages to wash over you like the sea-cant in Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey and Maturin series; don’t commit any of it to memory unless you’re someone who happens to enjoy knowing the difference between the mainmast and mizzen.
2. Try to remember each famous guy’s name through the end of the chapter; if it isn’t mentioned in the chapter following, it can be safely forgotten.
3. **This is the important bit**: remember the clever ideas, the stupid mistakes, and the personal character of each leader. Remember how they were judged by their peers, their subordinates, their superiors, and the inhabitants of the regions they conquered. Remember how they approached the basic mechanics of their trade, and note how the best of them had a way of evaluating what they had and making the most of it.
This is why these books became required reading for the military / government caste for thousands of years, right up into the modern era. These are important things to know.
Could they help you in business and politics nowadays? Yes, they could (moreso than thousands of pages of adolescent wanking about “alienation”, certainly), if you remember that it’s not the numbers, names, and dates that are important. Those help a little bit in providing context, that’s all.
What is important is judging the actions of the principals, particularly as they harmonize with your own life experience and expectations. It’s also important to keep in mind that their point of view is probably more important than your professors’… you’ll learn a whole lot more if you don’t approach these works with an attitude of rejection.
Well, yes, and very nicely put. Not everyone has the capacity but those that do should have the opportunity and would be lucky to find a teacher like you. Thanks for sharing.
Would that more historians wrote as Fischer does. One of the biggest hurdles today’s readers face with history is getting into the period they are reading about. No historian will ever capture all the context of 1776 (say), but skillfully selecting aspects of the past to highlight really helps, as Fischer habitually does in his books. It also makes them an interesting read (as opposed to a dull slog through analysis).
Oh, and regarding your comment (…I’m increasingly aware that reading serious books – not textbooks and not tracts of theory or philosophy – is a skill that not everybody learns….), keep in mind that a lot of college kids today are poorly prepped for the kind of effort demanded in college, however good their SAT scores were and however worthy their extracurricular high-school activities.
And if you enjoy watching a professional wield a claymore among his colleagues, do not miss Fischer’s Historians’ Fallacies. It’s brutal — the kind of book you’d open nervously, praying never to find your name in the index.
In my youth I was naturally blessed with good powers of concentration and often found myself totally immersed. My first serious read was 19th century history of the Goths at age 10 which no one reckoned I would finish. Not only did I finish it, I enjoyed it. I think I tend to err on the side of immersion and sometimes am not quick enough step back to isolate the theme. But sooner or later the immersion brings clarity.
Well, it seems we’ve come full course. The Boomer take over and imposition of a Progressive education has eradicated intelligent study. Not really their fault, I guess, being the beneficiaries but not really understanding the value of proper training in the art of studying, the denigration of rhetoric as a useful subject in itself and the lack of reward for teaching over that of “research” led to the collapse of the skills as the older professors retired/died out.
Funny thing is, I’m currently reading ‘How to Study and How to Teach Studying’ by F.M. McMurray, published in 1909. Oh, the how to teach part is how to teach this very same type of studying discussed here to elementary students. Well, we can certainly say that has slipped into history and now, so has such instruction at the university level.
The first mistake was putting rhetoric and composition in the English department. The second was the assumption that someone interesting in reading and analyzing literature could teach writing and studying. Initially, it wasn’t so bad, students were just forced to amuse the professor with composition on whatever his interests were, but now composition is little more than indoctrination class as exposed by Mary Grabar’s exposition on the 2011 Conference on College Composition and Communication (Writing Teachers: Still Crazy After All These Years)
But it is interesting that critical thinking, the often cited benefit of an undergraduate liberal arts education, was only 100 yrs ago a subject fit for elementary school students. Are you smarter than a 5th grader was in 1912?
“For vulpine readers like me, sitting down with a nice long history that will open up new vistas or give you a rich, detailed new perspective on old ones is among life’s great pleasures.” Sums it up well WRM as does “good readers know how to make books confess to more than the book intends – active broad reading beginning early and encouraged via cultural attitudes will enable many to identify pudding’s theme (and reduce traditional professorial laments).
To use your phrase WRM, learning to read actively avails life tools beyond comprehension (you have acquired an ability to not only ferret daily life but to relish in it). Your suggestion WRM inheres civilization building: “get this right and a lot of other things fall into place” – phrase active reading implies both facility/access and inclination/appetite to engage the printed word; a characteristic requiring cultivation, support, enhancement, and encouragement – preferably as young as preschool in our public education model.
The faster you read important books, the less thought you give to them, the more likely your target job is to be outsourced overseas to a foreign reader capable of reflection.
Thank you for this excellent short essay, Dr. Mead. Also glad you used Fischer, one of my favorite historians, as your example. I’ve tried to read everything he has written since I discovered his “Albion’s Seed”. I introduced a British friend to that book and he told me that he had never understood American culture and politics until he read it.
I’s also like to comment on the depth and breadth of information in “Washington’s Crossing.” Anyone who wants to understand the context of the founding generation’s attitudes to the intent of the Second Amendment and militias should read Fischer’s book.
When the Hessian troops settled in to their winter quarters in New Jersey they considered themselves to be in occupied territory of subjects who had revolted against their king. Under the European laws of war, any “abandoned property” in this zone could be confiscated as spoils of war. Hessian troops and their families (who accompanied them) roamed the countryside helping themselves to property where the owner wasn’t actively watching it.
People in New Jersey didn’t know anything about rules of war and concluded their erstwhile king had inflicted German-speaking looters upon them. When British and Hessian officers refused to listen to them and as civil authority had broken down, the Jerseyans took matters into their own hands.
Using their personal firearms (contra Michael Bellesiles), they formed a militia organized around civic leaders. Bands of Hessian troops and their wives looking for stuff to take were shot at and run off. The militia tightened the noose around the Hessian cantonments and ambushed any troops leaving the camps. Eventually the Hessians were afraid to leave in less than platoon-size strength.
The milita also made frequent probing attacks on the camps coupled with random sniping. Think of the Viet Cong in New Jersey. The Hessians kept most of their troops on alert round the clock and by the time Washington crossed the river to attack their troops were exhausted from continual false alarms.
The militia’s harrassing tactics and intelligence gathering set the stage for Washington’s victories.
interesting website i have only just started reading to be honest with you but were you say
poems, which we read quite slowly and deliberately.. i do this with books i wish i could read much faster but i am unable to understand what i am reading.