A Good Reader

Do not ask whether we are in complete agreement, but whether we are acting with one mind.

Goethe

A good reader has the difficult job of having to simultaneously fight both for and against the author; a bad reader will either take no sides, or just one. A casual reader takes no sides, invests nothing in the argument, so the material is forgotten as quickly as it is read. A dogmatic reader either has their opinion already fully formed, in which case their reading consists of a single-minded search for ways to attack the idea in question, or they are in the process of forming it, in which case they will swallow everything they are given without question. Good reading, that is, reading with the intent of following out an idea to grow your mind, requires the reader to perform the most taxing task of engaging with the author in a serious debate, of making sure that no uncertain conclusions manage slip past unquestioned, while at the same time giving them your full support so that your forces can work in tandem to explore the idea to its limits.

A good reader also has a secondary task of piercing the words to reach the meaning beneath. Remember that when you are reading an idea set in text, you are reading the author’s words, not the idea itself, which only exists in their mind, so the clarity of their writing is as much a reflection of them as a writer as it is of them as a thinker. A dogmatic reader likes to argue with the words themselves, taking them to be a complete representation of what the author wanted to convey. Naturally, such readers discover grammatical errors, vague sentences and undefined terms. Their reaction is to sink their teeth in these faults and to try to take the author down. Yes, it is the author’s responsibility to express themselves as clearly as possible in their writing if they wish their argument to be rightly interpreted and understood, but the reader also plays a part in how they approach the text, deciding whether to single-mindedly focus on the words alone, or, faced with deficiencies in the text, to try and interpret the meaning that the author wanted the convey.

As soon as you feel yourself against me you have ceased to understand my position and consequently my arguments! You have to be the victim of the same passion!

Nietzsche

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Further Reading

Proust wrote that the true voyage of discovery is not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes, to behold a hundred universes that each of them beholds. Thus, in the words of Ruskin, what good books give us is not mere knowledge, but sight.

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