Friday 28 May 2021

Are You Sure You Can Read?


Well, that’s an unusual, even odd, question, isn’t it?

Indulge me.


In my experience, if you ask a little child to read aloud a children’s tale, without any illustration, chances are at the end of the exercise the child will scarcely be able to re-tell the story. No use asking details like what did the tailor kill when he was at home? How many? What came later, two giants, a unicorn or a wild boar?

I’m no psychologist, but I believe the child to be too concentrated in translating the graphical symbols he/she sees on the paper into vocalisations, to pay much attention to the details of the story. Vocabulary may be another limitation.

Practice, however, makes perfect; mental development also helps and eventually human ability to understand written language improves. One reads with much less effort.

But less effort does not mean no effort at all. There are writings one can safely skim; others require much more care. One thing is to read a fairy tale or a novel or your mobile’s user guide. In our age of fake news, to read a newspaper story or magazine article requires a little more effort; your run-of-the-mill blog post (like this one) requires more effort: what if anything can you believe?

The written language is used to communicate. You read that kind of things essentially to be entertained by its author, to be informed about current affairs or to get the usually basic message the writer tries to convey.

An altogether different thing is to read a textbook or other kind of information-rich texts. They require a lot more effort. In a way, that kind of literature requires you to return to your childhood, when you were learning to read. You see, you read those books to learn from the author.

Information can be measured and there’s only so much information that a human brain can consciously process at a time. Unless circumstances (like a school test for which you are utterly unprepared) dictate otherwise, try to understand things slowly, bit by bit, certainly no faster than you can: make sure that you get what this sentence and this paragraph say before moving on to the next. So, to cut corners when dealing with that kind of writing is not a good idea. Avoid distractions. Use a dictionary, for Christ’s sake! If the text includes examples, invent some additional ones of your own. Writing notes at the margins is often useful. If there are exercises, do them. After you close the book, think about what you have just learned; try to associate that with other things from your own experience.

Textbooks are required readings of courses, so you need to learn what that book teaches you, even if you don’t really buy its message. You are required to know the message.


Other perhaps even more complex books are not required readings. So, nobody is really forcing you to read them. Often they form part of a discussion between authors with sometimes radically different positions.

Ideally, you approach that kind of book with an open mind. You volunteer to read it to have an informed opinion on the message its writer is trying to convey. Your predetermined goal is neither to debunk the writer, nor to buy his/her message; instead, you are giving him/her a fair chance to persuade you, by hearing what him/her have to say.

In other words, one should approach such books with the attitude Keynes described:

“An economic writer requires from his reader much goodwill and intelligence and a large measure of co-operation … In economics you cannot convict your opponent of error; you can only convince him of it.” (h/t Timothy Taylor, managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, dug up that quote. It’s a good read: Keynes knew virtue, even as he chose not to exercise it.)

To cooperate with a writer, to give him/her one’s goodwill and intelligence, does not mean to forget all about the critical thinking one uses when studying a textbook. 

Critical thinking is not a feverish hunt for a “gotcha!”, preferably early in the book, so that you can leave it aside. That is just a waste of your own time. It’s too easy to blame opposition to your criticism on your opponents’ religious adherence to a dogma. As a would-be critic, you may find this hard to believe, but there’s no theoretical reason why criticism — even your criticism — can’t be idiotic. So, to demand of the targets of one’s idiocy the open-mindedness one denies them is a bit too rich.

Think. If you believe you found a really big, gaping hole in the book’s argument, ask yourself: Is this something real or just a much hoped for mirage? You know what they say about things too good to be true, don’t you?

Too much caution, like too much cockiness, is a no-no. The errare humanum est thing applies as much to you as it applies to writers. Don’t let yourself be overly impressed by names or titles or long words, praise or criticism.

Think of the context, why the writer wrote what he/she wrote, when did he/she write it. Was that text a reply to someone else’s writing? You wouldn’t take sides in a dispute without knowing what both sides are arguing about, would you?

Just because the text has footnotes, it doesn’t mean it was properly researched: check at least some footnotes. Was there better data available at the time? 

Some texts require from the reader a temporary suspension of disbelief (models often fall in this category); but once you understand the story the model tells, disbelief and critical thinking must return with a vengeance.

To put this differently: challenge the writer. After all, if you already believe the author, why waste your time reading that message at all?


Sorry, I’m just not much of a believer in quick reading. I believe in doing one’s homework. It’s a tricky balancing act: to give the writer a fair chance, without falling into gullibility. It’s time-consuming, hard work. But there’s no way around: if it’s worth doing (and you’ve chosen doing it!), it’s worth doing well.

It has its own rewards. They say modesty is a virtue. Well, maybe. But false modesty is not. Congratulate yourself and feel proud of your work. Allow yourself to enjoy the experience of insight (“Ah! So, that’s what it all means!”). Even if you are ultimately wrong, you did your best and you will learn from your mistake. Either way, give yourself a reward.

You will have earned it.

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