Perspectives: How to be enlightened in the age of information overload

OPINION – The Information Age has changed our lives in ways few of us expected. On the one hand, there is more information available to us in a single day’s online edition of the New York Times than someone living in the 1800s was likely to encounter in their entire lifetime.

On the other hand, even though we swim in an ocean of information, the average 19th Century reader likely possessed greater depth and breadth of understanding of what they read than we do. They knew how to read books in a way that we’ve forgotten over time.

If you doubt this, try casually reading books that were published or were commonly read during the 1800s. Most educated adults, if they are being perfectly honest with themselves, will find such books a challenge to read.

No doubt, the prideful will think these are fighting words meant to denigrate their big, beautiful chess club brains. Not so. It’s the recognition that there is a world of difference in being informed and being enlightened.

When we read to become informed, we are simply seeking information that tells us that something is the case. But when we read for enlightenment, we seek to know not only what something is but also how it is interconnected, how it compares to other things, and why it is what it is.

Unfortunately, a lot of folks don’t realize that there’s more to reading than simply understanding the words on a page. If we wish to be taught by a book, we must understand that there are different levels of reading.

To that end, philosopher and educator Mortimer J. Adler wrote “How to Read a Book” back in 1940. He later collaborated with Charles Van Doren in the early 70s to release a newer edition.

In “How to Read a Book” Adler teaches that there are four different levels at which we read:

The first is elementary reading in which our goal is to understand the words on the page. This is the level at which most adults in our society read.

The second level is called inspectional reading. Here the goal is to discover what a  book has to say in a limited amount of time. Most of us become very skilled at this type of reading during our college years but stop as soon as there’s no longer a test attached to our reading.

The third level is analytical reading where we seek to learn what the book says in an unlimited time. This is where a person must take personal responsibility, study it out, and figure out the information for himself or herself. People who regularly study scripture tend to use this approach.

The fourth level is known as syntopical reading. This is the level where the reader discovers what multiple sources say about a particular subject. At this level of reading, the reader is likely spending as much time analyzing the discussion and writing about what they are discovering as they are reading.

By now it should be apparent that being well-read is not synonymous with reading a lot of information. Readers who scan articles on the Internet are informed on a superficial level. They still may lack the kind of depth of understanding that could help them to think, judge, assess, weigh, determine, evaluate, create, imagine, and solve problem more effectively.

Adler never tries to pretend that reading to learn is a simple thing that requires minimal effort. For instance, when encountering unfamiliar words or concepts while reading, do we skim on past or do we take the time to look up the meanings before proceeding?

Adler counsels those who really want to become better readers, “Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves and no more quickly than you can read it with comprehension and satisfaction.”

The different approaches to reading may also vary according to the subject matter we’re learning. Science, philosophy, history, practical books, and literature may each require a unique approach.

Obviously, not everyone reads for learning alone. This time of year it’s common to see vacationers sitting in the shade reading just for the fun of it. On a cold winter weekend, few things can compare with a comfortable chair by the fire with a good book in hand.

Technology puts unlimited information right at our fingertips but the best informed people you meet still read books too.

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Bryan Hyde is a radio commentator and opinion writer in Southern Utah. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @youcancallmebry

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2014, all rights reserved.

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1 Comment

  • Roy J June 30, 2014 at 7:47 pm

    This is actually one of my favorite books! It is also one of the most positive and inspiring contemporary works for American readers, as is Robert Hutchins ‘The Great Conversation’. ‘How to Read’ is a book that should be reread frequently. As a matter of trivial fact, the critical reading technique that Adler describes is also useful for memorization, because of it’s focus on the interelation of ideas in context. I used it about 10 years ago to memorize Belloc’s ‘Five Great Heresies’ and Maritain’s ‘Art and Scholasticism’. As far as critical thinking while reading goes, Adler’s approach far outweighs other ‘speed reading’ or ‘idea culling’ methods, such as that of Harry Lorrayne. I partially disagree with your perspective most of the time , but I am glad you are showcasing this book; it deserves far more consideration than it has been given in recent history, and is a great supplement to any college or high school humanities coursework. The idea of syntopical reading, carefully attended to, is of great importance as well, helping to train readers in the awareness of the discussion of ideas in any serious work, as well as serving to build up a substantial body of interconnected knowledge over a period of time; this in turn makes previously inaccesible or exceptionally difficult authors and thinkers much more readable…I should almost say that the sense of wonder is kindled along the way into a raging enthusiasm to actually want to read them. Anyways.

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