The joys of active reading

Reading is one of life’s great joys. Discovering a new book that speaks to you feels like a moment of insight into the nature of universe itself, and reading well can help you to gain a new perspective and unlock new ways of being. Put simply, reading is a pleasure.

There are different ways to read a book. Sometimes we read for entertainment and diversion; other times we read to learn or to understand. Sometimes we’re engaged with what we’re reading, and sometimes we’re distracted. You can be an active reader or a passive one.

In this post, I’m going to argue that active reading is a means of attaining the life of pleasure as envisioned by Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher and teacher. In doing so, I’ll discuss Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book1, a fantastic resource for bibliophiles who want to become better readers.

The pleasant Epicurean life

In his writings and teachings, Epicurus sought to help his students attain a life of pleasure. In his Letter to Menoecceus, Epicurus writes that the twins goals of happy living” were bodily health and a sound mind. Attaining bodily health is a matter of exercise, diet, and freedom from illness. But how can we attain soundness of mind? How can we live a pleasant life? According to Epicurus: 2

The pleasant life […] is the result of sober thinking — namely, investigation of the reasons for every act of choice and aversion and elimination of those false ideas about the gods and death which are the chief source of mental disturbances.

In other words, clear and sober thinking about our choices, our fears, our nature, and our beliefs about the universe are key to living the good life. We should never knowingly allow ourselves to live under illusions and should interrogate reality, striving for insight and knowledge. Sensibility, nobility, and justice are byproducts of this way of being: 3

It is impossible to live the pleasant Epicurean life without also living sensibly, nobly, and justly and, vice versa, that it is impossible to live sensibly, nobly, and justly without living pleasantly.

To live sensibly, nobly, and justly is a worthwhile goal and a lifelong project. In pursuing this goal we often need help from teachers. Perhaps you have someone close to you who is wise and knowledgeable, someone who can answer your questions. Or, as is more often often the case, your teachers are books.

How to Read a Book

Books are the words of wise friends who have taken care to write down their teachings for you. In reading a book, you enter into a conversation with this wise friend, a conversation that will make your more knowledgeable and understanding. To get the most out of a book, you need to pay attention to it and be alert. You must ask the book questions and seek answers. You must be an active reader.

As a guide to active reading, I can’t speak highly enough Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book4. It’s a great read filled with practical advice on how to improve your reading.

In the book, Adler and Van Doren outline their methodology for active reading. There are four levels of reading, each built on the foundations of the prior level:

  1. Elementary
  2. Inspectional
  3. Analytical
  4. Synoptical

Elementary reading is what we do in elementary school; basic literacy. Inspectional reading is skimming briefly through a book to get a sense of what it’s about and how it’s structured. Analytical reading is the nitty-gritty of working through, understanding, and criticizing the text. Synoptical reading is the art of reading multiple about the same subject and bringing them into conversation with each other.

Most of the advice in How to Read a Book applies to non-fiction works, however the author’s are clear that the principles can be applied to fiction as well. With fiction, there’s a tendency to read purely for entertainment and escapism. There’s nothing wrong with this necessarily, but reading to escape is easier and less active than reading for discovery and growth. Adler and Van Doren write: 5

[…] we could not live in this world if we were not able, from time to time, to get away from it. We do not mean that imaginative literature is always, or essentially, escapist. In the ordinary sense of that term, the idea is contemptible. If we must escape from reality, it should be to a deeper, or greater, reality.

Reaching this greater reality means reading better books and being better readers. But how can one be a better reader? Adler and Van Doren put forward an admirably decisive definition: 6

One reader is better than another in proportion as he is capable of a greater range of activity in reading and exerts more effort. He is better if he demands more of himself and of the text before him.

Demanding more of a book means being inquisitive, asking questions, and yearning for understanding. It means seeking knowledge and insight in books that can be applied to your life. The more effort you exert, the better the results: 7

In this respect a book is like the nature of the world. When you question it, it answers you only to the extent that you do the work of thinking and analysis yourself.

In How to Read a Book, Adler and Van Doren put forward four basic questions that a reader must ask:

  1. What is the book about as a whole?
  2. What is being said in detail, and how?
  3. Is the book true, in whole or in part?
  4. What of it?

The reader who asks these questions reads more deeply than the one who doesn’t ask. Asking these questions is the key to reading well. As the author’s point out, it’s better to read well than to read widely.

My marked up copy of How to Read a Book

What does active reading look like when one sits down to read? Put simply, active reading is reading with a pen in your hand. Don’t be afraid to dirty your books. Mark up pages. Make a book your own. Dog ear pages. Fill them with sticky tabs and post-its. Remark, comment, or doodle in the margins. Circle interesting words that you find. Highlight your favourite passages. Write a few sentences at the end of each chapter summarizing the interesting ideas. Cover your books in ink. Assert your ownership over the book. It is, after all, only a material item, not worthy in and of itself of reverence. You have the right to do with it as you will. Transform it from merely a book into an artifact of your soul.

The garden and the library

Learning to be an active reader is to follow Epicurus in his pursuit of a sensible, noble, and just life. Reading a book well leads to more understanding, and as Epicurus put it: 8

It is impossible to get rid of our anxieties about essentials if we do not understand the nature of the universe […]

Active reading can help us to think clearly, discover truths about ourselves, dispel false ideas about the universe, and quell our anxieties.

Epicurus advocated for a life of the garden, of quiet solitude and withdrawal from the mass of people”9. This is indeed wise advice. One can feel great joy when alone with a great book, a pen in hand, and an open, inquisitive mind. It’s in these moments that the noise begins to settle and a small piece of truth and understanding begins to blossom, ours for the time being but not ours to keep.

  1. Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading (New York: Touchstone, 1972).↩︎

  2. Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus.↩︎

  3. Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus.↩︎

  4. Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading (New York: Touchstone, 1972).↩︎

  5. Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading (New York: Touchstone, 1972), 200.↩︎

  6. Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading (New York: Touchstone, 1972), 5.↩︎

  7. Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading (New York: Touchstone, 1972), 14.↩︎

  8. Epicurus, Leading Doctrines, 12.↩︎

  9. Epicurus, Leading Doctrines, 14.↩︎

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