How Modern People Read

Nothing like seeing a friend from three decades ago, when you were a new and very green adult in the world, to stir up the mind.

John and I also talked a bit about Gilgamesh today. Me talking about Gilgamesh is nothing new. I do that with anybody and everybody who’ll listen. But talking about it to the guy who knew you way back when when you so naively embarked on a conscious search for “Truth” — especially when that same guy joined you, and with exactly the same naivete — that is something new.

It’s like our 20-year old selves were sitting on that beach with us two 47-year-olds all day.

False Starts in the Search for Truth

That 20-year-old me was such a lousy seeker for Truth. He read all the Old Books devotedly — the Greek, the Hebrew, the Vedic, the Christian, the Hindu, the Buddhist, the Taoist, the Gnostic, the Transcendental, “Yak yak yak.” He read them all, underlined passages, filled margins with scribbles, exclamation points, interrobangs. He started (and rarely finished) journals devoted to only copying the choicest of those words of Wisdom — quotes only. The Things to Remember. These were the words of Wisdom and Truth, and they were going to teach him Truth and Wisdom, by god. If he read them real closely to be sure he understood, then he’d find Truth and Wisdom. And life would be better because he’d have those things.

All I could do today while thinking about him was laugh at him.

Because I think I know now that that’s exactly the wrong way to read the Old Books.

If I had read Gilgamesh back then, when I was him, I would have been expecting it to teach me too. Another Old Book that was supposed to be Wise. That’s not how I read it now, thank goodness.

How Moderns Read

Anyway, I sat there on that beach wishing I had my iPod so I could record  what I was trying to aphoristically sum up about what I know about reading now — and wish I’d known well before 20, at your age, my students. I didn’t want this little stab at something essential to slip away. It went something like this:

It’s not what we learn from the Old Books. It’s what we see in them.1

That mental shift in relation to reading, I want to say, comes close to a definition of the modern reader. A traditional reader gives up his authority to the author. A modern reader takes that authority back. Copernicus did it to Aristotle and Ptolemy, for example — he doubted their scientific authority based on his own observations. Voltaire and Nietzsche did it to the religious authority of popes, preachers, and the Bible.

A modern reader, in a nutshell, doesn’t read on his knees.

The scary thing? It seems that a large number of Americans are not modern readers at all.

And the sad thing? They all went to American schools — which doesn’t speak well about American education.

  1. And yes, this is probably true of all books. But moreso, I think, for pre-scientific books. []

7 thoughts on “How Modern People Read”

  1. How do I teach that? Or how do I know if what I am doing is facilitating “taking the authority back” for my students? Is this something that can only happen for an experienced, mature reader?
    More ques than answers.
    .-= Hellen´s last blog ..THIS I BELIEVE =-.

    1. Hi Hellen,

      That it doesn’t seem to be a habit of most (?) adults says to me that getting them while they’re young and raising them to at least have an inkling that “mature” reading exists is a good idea. That’s why I’m playing with aphorisms to point, bumper-sticker style, to what may be a mystery for them now, but through repetition may stick in their memory so they don’t forget such a skill exists after they leave me.

      That most adults don’t read at all beyond fluff (in America, anyway) tells me likewise that it’s a good idea. Maybe they don’t read because they were never introduced to liberated reading. Maybe that introduction will turn some people onto the pleasures of reading and thinking that seem endangered practices in American culture.

      On a simpler level, encouraging or requiring them to criticize the people, ideas, and events in their history or liberal arts classes — to pass judgment on these things — may be a good start. Then they can graduate to justifying their judgments with reason and evidence.

      I like the phrase “habits of mind.” This is an unrelated stab at the general concept.

  2. Sage words indeed. If the reverse of the Socratic method is provoking students’ doubts, far as “truth”, more precisely, facts, students can question you through that mechanical appendage permanently attached to the tip of their finger tips in the form of iPhones. I don’t mind that they look for facts or doubt me but surf the phone for the facts while I’m lecturing is down right annoying 😉 Not legitimately lamentable as your point perhaps. I see your point; they have the facts but not the truths or thinking outside the box critical skills.

    I have to veered off a little from yoru path, although it`s more for EAP “English“ English-class than adult EFL. I have always like the book “How to Read a Book (Touchstone book) by Adler, Mortimer J. and Charles Lincoln Van Doren`.

    I still make notes on margins… How would you do that with ebook readers such as Kindle or “iTablet“? I am ambivalent about the these new devices for future readers. (Obviously I`m a Kinesthetic learner :) …The prospect of traveling with thousands, (maybe long 100s) of books in one little 4×10 plastic encasing is very seductive. Cheap too! The average novel is just below $10.

    Great post as usual. Looking forward to the next.

  3. Hi Chuck,

    First, I feel your pain about the ereader bit. I haven’t tried them out yet, but some are starting to integrate social highlighting and annotating, where readers can share and see each other’s responses to passages on the “page,” which is an interesting development. Somebody on Twitter shared this link with me:

    In 10 years things should be interesting, but right now it’s all primitive. I’ve read arguments that cost levels after purchasing a certain number of books because ebooks are cheaper, but again, I don’t know.

    Time to plan the day’s lesson. Thanks for stopping by.

    I love How to Read a Book and use it too.

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