Active v Passive Reading

There are two ways to read a book: The right or correct way, and the wrong or incorrect way. There is the way a book ought and deserves to be read, and then there is any other way than this.

Most of what is out there waiting to be read—the vast majority of magazines, books, et cetera—has been written either purely for entertainment or for “infotainment”–a quick lively/clever/witty summary of a given subject or idea.  And because most of what is written tends to be lacking in depth and substance, the best way to such material is to read it quickly, without wasting much time—or life—on it.  Much of what is out there vying for our reading time and attention really has little to offer other than the consumption of our time and the weakening of our attention.  Most books aren’t written to be read: they’re written to be skimmed.

Many books may help us to become more clever or entertaining or witty, they may give us something to talk about with others at work or at lunch or at a social gathering, but other than that, most books really don’t offer us much in terms of helping us to become better persons—maybe a more entertaining person, perhaps a more superficially happy and anesthetized person—but not a better and wiser and more substantive person.

The same holds true for why and what to read:  Don’t just read for escape or so that you’ll have something to talk about with others, read stuff that helps make you a better and wiser and more courageous and loving person.

Realizing this long ago has made reading much easier. Why read a given book (an 8 or more plus hour time commitment) if I can watch the movie (a 2 or 2&1/2 hr commitment)? Do I really have so much time left on the clock in my life that I can afford to spend much of it on reading entertaining or infotaining books and magazines? My free time is precious; reading for pleasure (light reading)—which honestly hasn’t been something I’ve done or wanted to since my preteen years reading “The Hardy Boys,” “Encyclopedia Brown,” and “Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators”—just doesn’t pique my interest any more. I’d much rather be spending time with my family, or out in nature practicing my photography, or out exercising riding my (mountain) bike or playing tennis. And if I need to be entertained, I’d rather watch a movie than read the book the movie was based on.

So what does all of this have to do with Active versus Passive Reading?

Since most of what is out there waiting to be read is mostly for infotainment or dissipation/escape/anesthetizing, then reading it quickly and passively (skimming it) is completely apropos. Life is too short, too precious.

But when it comes to wisdom books, advice books, poems—potential change your life type stuff—reading these sorts of materials passively is the wrong way to read them.

When we read something passively, we read it quickly, undeliberately, more or less in a way tantamount to skimming it. When we are reading passively, we are not allowing ourselves room to think, to question ourselves, to question our own reactions, to question the author, to dwell and reflect on what is being communicated to us (which may be very little).

In other words, to read passively is to read uncritically and in a unthinking manner.

To read something Actively is to read it not just critically, but deeply, and in a way that encourages and nurtures our own thinking, imagination, awareness.

When we are reading something Actively, we read it slowly. We don’t mow through 50 pages in one sitting—that is evidence enough of having read something Passively or something purely entertaining. Instead when we read Actively, we may be lucky to make it through 5 or 10 pages in one sitting. When we read Actively, we read like a tortise, not the hare; we read deliberately; we read with highlighters and pencil in hand or nearby. We stop—by necessity—every few lines or so because we have read something that is so packed with insight and revelation that we need to pause and read the sentence again, and let our mind wander over and rummage the idea, sit with it for a while, give our own thoughts time to evolve, give ourselves time to ponder and ask questions. Or we stop every few lines or so because something we’ve read has triggered in us several thoughts that we need time to jot down, journal about, ruminate over, contemplate, et cetera. There’s no finish line we’re racing towards. The journey is the destination. The development and exercising and increasing of our thinking, awareness, perspective, is what we’re after.

“The purpose of a book of meditations is to teach you how to think and not to do your thinking for you. Consequently if you pick up such a book and simply read it through, you are wasting your time. As soon as any thought stimulates your mind or your heart you can put the book down because your meditation has begun.” – Thomas Merton, “New Seeds of Contemplation,” pg. 215

If we are truly reading something actively, we will have to stop and consider what we think, explore what we think.

And writing and or journaling our thoughts is a crucial part of this process—the process of Actively reading or digesting something.

In fact, in my experience, once one learns to read Actively, it’s hard to read passively again—or to read things that are written to be read passively. Those faculties that develop and strengthen by reading Actively like to be continue being developed and strengthened, like to be exercised, in fact long to be exercised and used, and not wasted or numbed or atrophied by reading things meant to be skimmed and that do not reward Active reading.

When we learn to read Actively, we have given birth to something in us—to a new nexus of characteristics and capacities within us—and those capacities and characteristics want to live, want to grow and strengthen. They have a will to live all of their own, and because of that, this part of us wants to be well used and not wasted on reading books that are not full of insight and wisdom and rev

“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.” – George Bernard Shaw

This applies to reading as well. The true joy of reading is not in reading for escape and pleasure, but reading actively, for the exercise of our mind and heart and soul—for our betterment and enlarging our perspective and points of reference.

In some ways, reading is like skiing. Everyone has to start from zero, learning the basics—reading simple books, practicing skiing on the bunny hill. But once you learn to ski well, the bunny hill just doesn’t hold much appeal; you want to test and exercise your skills by skiing a trail that is more in keeping with your level of skill. And eventually you want to try your hand at being a force of nature on the slopes, swooshing down a black diamond run.

In my experience, the same holds for reading once a person has learned how to read Actively; once one has been introduced to wisdom books, other (and arguably lesser) books and materials just don’t hold the same appeal or interest.

Other posts about reading and about books that might be of interest: