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Reading for Understanding

In Mortimer Adler’s classic, How to Read a Book, he makes a distinction between reading for “information” and reading for “understanding.” Simply using a book to acquire new facts—reading for information—is different than using the book to grow in our understanding of ourselves and the world.

As Adler puts it, there’s a difference between simply being able to recall what an author said, and in understanding what he actually meant and why he said it in the first place. For him, this marks the difference between being simply informed by a book, and in being enlightened by it.

Reading for understanding is harder than merely reading for information (or for entertainment). Reading for understanding first requires a difference to exist between the author’s understanding and your own. If you already understand everything in a book perfectly when you first read it, then there’s no room for growth—you’re already on the same level of understanding as the author, and his book won’t help you grow. But if there is a difference, it means you have a chance to grow, although you’ll have to do a little work to close the gap.

But this kind of reading isn’t easy. You’ll feel like you’re in over your head at times—which is a good sign if you’re looking to grow—and it may take some time and effort to begin to understand exactly what he’s saying, and why he’s saying it, and what the implications may be.

A lot of reading material that you’ll come across doesn’t require this kind of investment. It’s easy to read, and everything within it is readily understandable. You may gather lots of new facts along the way, yet fail to grow or be enlightened.

There are other books, though, that have the capacity to not only inform you, but to actually change the way you see everything. The author brings a different level of understanding to the table, and through grappling with the text, you begin to grow and understand things on that higher level.

Of course, it’s possible to read these same books in order to simply get “through them,” acquiring tidbits of information along the way, while failing do the work necessary to learn deeply from the author—focusing on being “widely read,” but failing to be “well read” in the process.

I’m not suggesting all our reading should be done at this deeper level. There’s plenty of room for reading for information and for entertainment. But if those are the only kinds of reading we do, we’re missing out on the benefits of conversing and learning from so many men and women that have gone before us—authors that have something to say, and who can help us grow in our understanding of ourselves and the world.

Sometimes the reason we don’t learn from these authors is because we never visit. And other times, it’s because we fail to pay close attention when we do.

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