For everything we do, we do with a goal in mind. The moment we walk out the door, we do so with a purpose. From the most important tasks to the most trivial, we have an end in mind.
The late great Stephen R. Covey, in his highly regarded book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, calls this habit: Beginning with The End In Mind. He separates the regular folk who don’t put too much effort into this habit, and the leaders that do. The line that Covey draws in the sand that separates these people is based on sitting down and actually writing out your goals in the form of a personal Mission Statement.
What does this have to do with reading? Well, when we read, we do so with an end in mind. There are 3 goals we can achieve when we read. These are:
1. Reading for Entertainment
2. Reading for Information
3. Reading for Understanding
Reading for Entertainment
The most common, and the main reason we mentally struggle to grow. Reading is like eating, and reading for Entertainment is like eating sweets. It feels good to relax and read a James Patterson story, but how does this help us mature as men and women? Mark Edmundson, in his book, Why Read?, talks about what he calls Final Narratives. A Final Narrative is that story we tell ourselves on how we should live our lives, and he firmly argues that our Final Narratives can best be developed when we are intellectually challenged.
Don’t get me wrong, I love to read John Grisham, James Patterson, Michael Crichton, etc., but time needs to be made to read challenging books. I am not saying that reading for Entertainment is a cardinal sin, but what I am saying is that our palette needs more exposure to different foods and too much candy can ruin our appetite and our mental fitness.
Reading for Information
The kind of people that read for information read interesting subjects, but they do so superficially. Reading to be informed is reading to just know about something, but the problem starts there because the learning stops at knowing. Great philosophers like Mortimer Adler make a distinction between knowing something and understanding something. In his masterpiece on the art of reading, “How To Read A Book,” Adler talks about the person who reads for information. Adler writes that, for example,
” [a] person who knows some of the facts of American history and understands them in a certain light can readily acquire by reading…. more such facts and understands them in the same light. But suppose he is reading a history that seems not merely to give him some more facts but also to throw a new and perhaps more revealing light on all the facts he knows.”
What Adler is arguing is that when we read for information, the communication done between writer and reader is done as equals, where the writer may be communicating new information to the reader, but they share the same level of understanding.
Reading newspapers, and magazines are good to be informed on what’s going on around us, but they do not help you understand what’s going on under the surface. Is swimming worth it if you only stay on the surface? This question brings me to the last goal in reading.
Reading for Understanding
The former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope John Paul II wrote a book in 1968 called, Introduction to Christianity, and in it, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (who would later on become Pope Benedict XVI) wrote about a philosophical shift on how we view reality that started with Descartés, ended with Kant, but was articulated the best by the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico. Against the Scholastic formula that verum est ens (being is truth), Vico advanced his own formula, verum esse ipsum factum ( what is true is precisely what we make).
Basically, society had a shift in belief from objective truth to subjective facts (things that we can sense), and this shift has influenced how we today view this last goal with scepticism. To read for understanding means that we read to view a subject not from a historical perspective ( like, for example, how Jefferson was essential to the Declaration of Independence), but from a philosophical perspective ( like why is Jefferson’s idea about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness a right, and not a privilege).
The difference lies in the kinds of questions we, as readers, try to answer. When we read to be informed, we ask, “what?”, “where?”, “who?” and “how?”. But, when we read to understand, we ask the most important question of them all, “why?”
Another example can be given that readers can relate to; readers know that reading is good for them, but non-readers (and some readers too, to be honest) don’t understand why reading is an essential activity.
Reading for Understanding needs to be the main goal for a reader. Reading for Entertainment and for Information are good and necessary, but reading for Understanding should be the main purpose for our reading. Why do we even read if not to water those plants in our minds and hearts so that they can grow to become beautiful and mature trees?
Every choice we make, we do so with an end in mind, and the choices we make are greatly influenced by our Final Narrative. Our Final Narrative is not influenced by Entertainment, nor Information. Our Final Narrative is influenced by Understanding. From the most mundane task to the most important, the way we understand reality, our neighbors, and ourselves will determine the lives we live. Choices are not made in a vacuum.
The road that leads to the end that is reading for Understanding is often the road less traveled, and for an decent reason. It is a difficult road to take, requiring hard work and dedication. But, just like any good story, adventures worth having come with a cross to bear.
- Mortimer Adler, Charles Van Doren, How To Read A Book
- Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Introduction To Christianity
- Mark Edmundson, Why Read?
- Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People