The 3 Goals of Reading

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.

Puerto Rican coconut dessert pudding known as “Tembleque”

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 Descart├ęs, 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).

Giambattista Vico (1668-1744)

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.

Are you taking the Road Less Traveled when you read?

References

  • 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

The Idea Collection

In this new digital era, information is at your fingertips. Do you want to know how tall is the Eiffel Tower? Google it. How about if you want to know why is the sky blue? Ask Siri. You get the picture. The point is, to read a physical book has become a relic of the past, like riding a horse. Unnecessary, useless, mundane.

The problem with this idea is the fact that any time you watch an interview on YouTube where a podcaster is interviewing a leader in whatever field it is that they are leading, it is almost guaranteed that behind that leader, you will find a personal library. Not a Kindle, and definitely not Alexa. A personal library. Why are books still relevant in spite of the benefits of the digital age? More specifically, why are personal libraries still relevant when public libraries are available?

What I am not saying is that public libraries are unnecessary. On the contrary, public libraries are essential for providing access to Great Ideas for everybody, regardless of their financial situation. What I am saying, however, is that a Personal Library is better than a Public Library.

  • Personal books are more sensually engaging than borrowed books

Books are sensually engaging. Studies show that people who grow up in a home where books where present where more likely than those who did not to become readers. According to a study by the University of Nevada, it was shown that the difference in kids who were raised in a bookless home compared to a home filled with books had as great an effect on the level of education a child will attain as having parents who are barely literate (3 years of education) compared to having parents who had a university education (15 to 16 years)(University of Nevada, “Books in home as important as parents’ education in determining children’s education level,” (2010)).

We are, by nature, drawn by mystery. From diving into the depths of the sea to exploring space, we are attracted to the unknown. Looking at unread books, we wonder if they are worth the read, and, eventually, you end up picking them up.

  • Personal books engage the mind more than borrowed books

Books are mentally engaging. Whenever I listen to a good speech or interview, I always think, “I wish there was a way to have my say while the thoughts are fresh.” Turns out, books provide a way to do that by annotating. By writing in the margins, by underlining and highlighting, you enter into a dialogue with the writer, and this helps sharpen your own ideas about the subject.

There are 4 levels of reading, and these are:

  1. Elementary Reading
  2. Inspectional Reading
  3. Analytical Reading
  4. Syntopical Reading (or Comparative Reading)

I will cover more in depth in the future these levels of reading, but I want to mention here that the 2 higher levels of reading (Analytical, and Syntopical) require the reader to own the books that he is analyzing, and making them your own by annotation. This is due in part of the fact that these 2 levels of reading are done to not simply know the book and the subject the writer is writing about, but to understand the book, the writer, and subject he is writing about.

  • Personal books engage the heart more than borrowed books

Finally, having a personal library moves the heart to action. Borrowing a book from the library is good, but its not personal. In contrast, buying a book is personal because we are making the financial investment, hence, making us more committed on the type of book we are purchasing, making us more committed to listening to the argument the writer is making, and making us more committed to be demanding as a reader and leader.

Just like most people like to collect stuff like coins, toys, knickknacks, etc., leaders like to collect ideas. Having a personal library is literally having an Idea Collection. And this Idea Collection helps leaders sharpen their own ideas on how to solve modern problems. Most readers are not leaders, but most leaders are readers, and I believe that the key distinction here comes from people having an Idea Collection.

The Best Version of Ourselves

In the US of A, it is commonly accepted that an Education is only a means for us to get skills to get a good job. While this is true in some respects, Education is much more than just job training. Education stretches the mind, and opens our eyes; Education expands our outlook on everything, and challenges our beliefs. Education, at its core, takes us to the top of the mountain of our humanity, thus understanding how to lead a happy life.

A job is essential to live, but it is not what we live for. A job is a means to grow in wealth, but wealth is only what we use to get stuff. In other words, wealth is not what we live life for. So, why put so much emphasis on our jobs? Why do we, collectively as Americans, think it is OK to sacrifice everything else for the sake of our careers? This philosophy drains us, burns us, and in the end, kills us. To change the way we live, we must start by changing the way we think. This is where Education comes into play.

Education is more than job training. Education is a transmission of values, a challenge to the mind, and a lens to the world around us. Classical thinkers, like Plato, thought that the end of Education was the welfare of the individual and society. Classical thinkers, unlike Modern Thinkers, were holistic in thought. Plato understood that a true Education satisfied not only our desire to live comfortably (where we needed job training), but it also satisfied our desire for Truth (Mind), and our desire to do Good (Heart).

In other words, a good Education is meant to satisfy us in more ways than just financially; Education is meant to help us become the men and women we are meant to be. Once we understand and appreciate what an Education truly is, it becomes our guide, taking us to the top of the mountain that is called “The Best Version of Ourselves.”

The Cultivation of Mind and Heart

Felons get a bad reputation, but with good reason. They picked up one end of the stick, and as a consequence, picked up the other end of that stick. All of this is self evident, but what is not evident, and needs an eloquent answer is: how do we approach rehabilitation?

How do we prepare these men and women to re-enter successfully back into society?

A liberal arts education is the best investment we can make to prepare Prisoners to rejoin us as neighbors and to reduce the appeal of crime.

But why? How? And isn’t there something more practical than a liberal arts education?

To understand why is to see the end, or the final cause. The end of a liberal education is the Cultivation of the mind, and the heart. The original definition of liberal was ” of or pertaining to free men.” The Greeks and Romans clearly understood that this education was the best preparation for men to run, and positively contribute to, society. This is a type of education that challenges the mind and forces it out of its comfort zone, similar to what Gandalf did to Bilbo in the opening pages of “The Hobbit.”

Without the “slight” push that Gandalf gave Bilbo, he would never have discovered the virtues that were hidden inside him and thus would have rotten unhappily in comfort. In the same way, our minds rot when not challenged intellectually, leading us to live boring, stagnant lives, where negative thoughts suggest doing horrendous things seeking for thrills, pleasure, wealth and / or power.

But, how is the heart reached? The heart is our center, our “I.” Our hearts are where choices are made and others rejected, making the heart the captain of the ship. But, does the captain make choices uninformed, on a whim or feeling? Of course not; every captain has a helmsman, and every good captain listens to his helmsman. How else would we get to where we are going if the captain does not listen to his navigator?

Prisoners would greatly benefit from an education that targets the mind, and heart. This would help them figure out ways that they can contribute to their families and communities, opportunities to be constructive instead of destructive, and, finally, a liberal education will expose prisoners to real models of men and women found in great literature.

Some naysayers, however, challenge this solution, calling it useless and offering instead a vocational training as proper rehabilitation. Personally, I know the benefits of a vocational training as a HVAC technician. However, this training was taken by me after being educated in the liberal arts. When building a home, construction workers start building the foundation before they even worry about building the walls or ceiling. In the same way, vocational training would not work until the foundation set by liberal education is done.

A prisoner can be trained to service an A/C unit , but if his heart is in the wrong place, and his mind constantly whispers the same errors in thinking, eventually, we will witness a relapse. If we sincerely want prisoners to not relapse, we as a community must invest in the offering of a liberal education.

If you have made it here, you might be wondering, “how can I contribute?” There are 3 ways: time, talent, and treasure. If you have time to spare and have something to teach, volunteer. If you have the talent of writing well, spread the pros of helping those incarcerated, and / or volunteer to teach writing inside. If you have the money to donate, give to non profits like the Million Book Project, Free Minds Book Club, the Bard Prison Initiative, etc. There are various ways to get involved, and we cannot depend on the government to do this for us. Gandalfs are necessary for these chained Bilbos to break free of those chains that bind their minds and hearts.

Finally, what fruits can we expect from this investment?

Imagine felons leaving prison knowing  how to listen empathically, how to speak clearly, how to write eloquently and purposely and how to read voraciously. Imagine felons leaving prisons with goals in their minds, dreams to pursue, role models to imitate, and fired up to give a hand to those who are down just like they were given a hand up when they were down.

Basically, the fruits of this harvest should be leaders that know how to receive ideas and how to transform others who are still chained up. A liberal education is not a luxury for those who are wealthy, it is a necessity for a life worth living, not just for the ones receiving this education, but also for those giving it

The Common Denominator

Anybody who has met a successful individual is always initially starstruck and is usually left in awe. They admire these individuals, and they aspire to reach the top of the mountain that these leaders have reached. However, most people do not make it to the top and they assume, correctly, that this is because they’ve failed to put in the work.

It is accurate to say that the leaders on the top of the mountain did not just fall there. How did they get there though? What tools did they use? Can’t we just make it there with some good connections, luck and some good old American grit?

What I am about to say may sound like common sense, but as Mark Twain put it, ” common sense ain’t common.” There is a common denominator that these leaders have: they receive. Let me define my terms; by receiving, I mean that these leaders listen and read. In other words, leaders receive ideas.

Every human being is born “tabula rasa” (with a blank slate); everything we know, we know because we received that knowledge from our parents, our teachers, our coaches, and all those who have been here before us.

The human race is a social race. We are standing here today because we worked together, and to work together, we need to communicate. We speak, and we listen; we read, and we write. Without this, we would have gone extinct by now. To listen and to read, however, we need the virtue of humility. From experience, anyone who has lived knows that without humility, we cannot receive.

Listening is important, but I say that reading is more so. This is due to the fact that while you can cross space while speaking and listening( by talking to you across the room, for example), I can cross space and time by writing and reading. By being able to read, we are able to communicate with Plato, Aristotle, Gandhi, Saint Thomas Aquinas, among other great thinkers who have influenced the leaders of today with their great ideas.

But the crossing of space and time is not the only benefit to reading. Reading also challenges your mind and heart, like dumbbells challenge your muscles. Reading invites you into a dialogue with the writer where you express your own thoughts by writing, and writing sharpens and clarifies your own ideas.

To sum it up, leaders reached the top of the mountain by receiving ideas from conversations and books. But, what did they do with these great ideas? Did they sit on them? Or, did they shine a light around them, helping others reach the peak. The problem is that we are all mortal and today’s leaders will not be there tomorrow. We could be tomorrow’s, but it does take work, but at least we now know the common tools to reach the peak.

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