How important is reading in becoming an educated, wise, and thoughtful person? Many educators identify reading as the foundational discipline to all fields of study. For example, leading American educator E. D. Hirsch says, “We all know that reading is the most important academic skill.”1 Distinguished philosopher and educator Mortimer J. Adler summed it up as “reading is learning.”2
To illustrate how reading can make a powerful difference in a person’s life allow me to share some of my own learning experiences. Hopefully what I have to share will encourage others to pursue a rigorous approach to reading and learning. And I hope this will especially be true of those who share my faith in Jesus Christ.
Only Doing Enough to Get By
As a kid, I was an average student in school. Yet I was bright, with plenty of intellectual potential. Most of my teachers would likely say that I only did enough to get by. My goal in life was to be a professional baseball player and, to my parents’ chagrin, I didn’t let school work get in the way of my athletic dreams. So, growing up I wasn’t a strong reader.
Pursuing the Life of the Mind
When I became a Christian in my early college years I discovered that my mind really mattered. For me, being a Christian meant that I now prized truths both big and small. So, I began pursuing knowledge, truth, and wisdom as a daily priority as part of my love for and service to God. I hungered for knowledge and I knew that I needed to seriously hit the books. So, I set the ambitious goal of reading three hours a day, usually early in the morning (5 to 8 AM). Then I would go off to school or work.
10,000 Hours of Reading
I engaged in this reading discipline for about ten years. Sure there were many days that I didn’t meet the three-hour goal, but overall I was pretty consistent. After about a decade of voracious reading I experienced what I would call an exponential growth in depth of understanding. The bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell talks about “the 10,000-hour rule.”3 It is the idea that if you practice a skill properly for 10,000 hours you can potentially develop a world-class expertise. I wouldn’t claim to have a world-class intellect, but I do know that the hours I spent in diligent reading led to a dramatic growth in my understanding of critical ideas, especially in such fields as philosophy, theology, and history.
How to Read a Book
In the latter part of my intense reading program I discovered a book on reading that served to advance my intellectual life even further. It is the contemporary classic on reading entitled How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren.4 This volume truly revolutionized my understanding of reading and learning and became one of the most important books that I have ever read. I gleaned so much from this work that I return to it yearly for continuous review and study. I have even taught reading and learning courses through RTB’s Reasons Institute and used this book as one of my textbooks.
The authors of this valuable book distinguish between reading for information and reading for depth of understanding. They also explore learning by instruction (with teachers) as opposed to learning by discovery (through private reading). And they categorize four types or levels of reading: elementary (or basic), inspectional (skimming), analytic (deliberative), and syntopical. This last level entails the reading of multiple books on a single topic and coming to an evaluation of the topic independent of the sources that were read.
Living in a Library
Today as an RTB scholar I have a personal library of about 4,000 books and I still set reading goals for myself. Writing my own books requires reading an untold number of other books. But a world of books and reading makes for a rich life.
So as the voice of the child told St. Augustine to “Take Up and Read” (Latin: Tolle Lege),5so I invite you to consider a greater commitment to the world of reading, books, and ideas. If you embark on such an educational journey you will never be the same again.
So how about beginning a new reading routine in the new year?
Reflections: Your Turn
Do you set reading goals? Which great books do you plan to read?
- E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Joseph F. Kett, James Trefil, The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, revised and updated, 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002), vii-viii.
- Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972), 33.
- Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008), see chapter 2.
- See my introduction to Adler and Van Doren’s classic book here: “Take Up and Read: How to Read a Book”
- Read about St. Augustine’s conversion in my book Classic Christian Thinkers: An Introduction (see chapter 3).