Grind & Gristle

Month: January, 2015

The most important rule about reading

How many times have you daydreamed your way through a book?

Dear Dr. Adler,

To tell you the truth, I find the so-called great books very difficult to read. I am willing to take your word for it that they are great. But how am I to appreciate the greatness in them if they are too hard for me to read? Can you give me some helpful hints on how to read a hard book?


Dear I.C.,

The most important rule about reading is one I have told my great books seminars again and again: In reading a difficult book for the first time, read the book through without stopping. Pay attention to what you can understand, and don’t be stopped by what you can’t immediately grasp. Keep on this way. Read the book through undeterred by the paragraphs, footnotes, arguments, and references that escape you. If you stop at any of these stumbling blocks, if you let yourself get stalled, you are lost. In most cases you won’t be able to puzzle the thing out by sticking to it. You have a much better chance of understanding it on a second reading, but that requires you to read the book through for the first time.

This is the most practical method I know to break the crust of a book, to get the feel and general sense of it, and to come to terms with its structure as quickly and as easily as possible. The longer you delay in getting some sense of the over-all plan of a book, the longer you are in understanding it. You simply must have some grasp of the whole before you can see the parts in their true perspective – or often in any perspective at all.

Shakespeare was spoiled for generations of high-school students who were forced to go through Julius Caesar, Hamlet, or Macbeth scene by scene, to look up all the words that were new to them, and to study all the scholarly footnotes. As a result, they never actually read the play. Instead, they were dragged through it, bit by bit, over a period of many weeks. By the time they got to the end of the play, they had surely forgotten the beginning. They should have been encouraged to read the play in one sitting. Only then would they have understood enough of it to make it possible for them to understand more.

What you understand by reading a book through to the end – even if it is only fifty per cent or less – will help you later in making the additional effort to go back to places you passed by on your first reading. Actually you will be proceeding like any traveler in unknown parts. Having been over the terrain once, you will be able to explore it again from vantage points you could not have known about before. You will be less likely to mistake the side roads for the main highway. You won’t be deceived by the shadows at high noon, because you will remember how they looked at sunset. And the mental map you have fashioned will show better how the valleys and mountains are all part of one landscape.

There is nothing magical about a first quick reading. It cannot work wonders and should certainly never be thought of as a substitute for the careful reading that a good book deserves. But a first quick reading makes the careful study much easier.

This practice helps you to keep alert in going at a book. How many times have you daydreamed your way through pages and pages only to wake up with no idea of the ground you have been over? That can’t help happening if you let yourself drift passively through a book. No one ever understands much that way. You must have a way of getting a general thread to hold onto.

A good reader is active in his efforts to understand. Any book is a problem, a puzzle. The reader’s attitude is that of a detective looking for clues to its basic ideas and alert for anything that will make them clearer. The rule about a first quick reading helps to sustain this attitude. If you follow it, you will be surprised how much time you will save, how much more you will grasp, and how much easier it will be.

The one power you always have over your habits

It may be about time I read The Power Of Habit. It’s recommended all over the place, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. Not one bookstore I’ve been into in the last three months hasn’t had it on prominent display.

Still, I think the main reason is that I already know how powerful habits are. I’m always in the process of establishing one or two, and the list of habits I want to try is endless.

So rather than read about how popular they’ve become, why not a few read older books and realize, in awe, that the power of habit is old news. As in more than 2,000 years old.

Dear old Aristotle calls habit our “second nature.” So what’s our “first” nature? It’s all neatly explained in the short letter I’ve included below (in bold and underlined at the end if you want to skip to it).

Dear Dr. Adler,

We hear so much about the power of habit in human life. William James says it is “the flywheel of society,” and Aristotle calls it “second nature.” But what is this powerful influence called “habit”? And why is it so important in our lives?


Dear B.H.

Let me begin by explaining Aristotle’s famous statement that habit is second nature. Habits are additions to the nature with which we are born. We are born with the power or ability to act in certain ways and also with certain innate patterns of action, which are called instinct or reflexes. Our innate tendencies to action can be developed and formed by what we actually do in the course of living. Such developments or formations are habits.

For example, we have an innate capacity for a great many different kinds of action in which skill can be acquired by practice. We learn to talk grammatically; we learn to think logically; we learn to cook or drive a car; we learn to ice skate or play tennis. In each case the learning results in an acquired skill which is a habit. In each case the habit actually gives us an ability which was only potential in us at birth.

That is why Aristotle calls habit second nature. Our original nature consists of capacities which can be developed or perfected by learning or experience. The development or perfection of those capacities supplements our original nature and thus constitutes a “second” – an added or acquired – nature.

Our need to form habits arises from the fact that, unlike the lower animals, we are not born with instinctive patterns of behavior adequate for the conduct of life. What certain animals do instinctively, we have have to learn to do. Instincts are, in a sense, innate or natural habits, just as human habits are acquired or second nature.

Our original nature – our innate equipment – is fixed for life, though it is subject to modifications of all sorts. The habits we form, which modify our original nature, also have a certain stability, though they, too, are subject to alteration. We can strengthen our habits, weaken them, or break them entirely and supplant them by others. Like our original nature, our second nature – our repertoire of habits – gives each of us the particular character he has at a given stage of life. If you know a man’s habits, you can predict with some assurance what he is likely to do.

So far we have been talking about the individual. Common habits of thought and action in a community, the “ways” of a people, are usually called customs. Customs keep things on an even keel in a society. It enables the common life to go on harmoniously. It smooths the way for interchange between individuals and holds them together. We never feel at home in a new place until we’ve become accustomed to its customs and make them our own.

That is what William James means in calling habit “the enormous flywheel of society, its most precious conservative agent.” (A flywheel by its inertia keeps the engine going at a uniform speed and compensates for torque.)

James applies this insight to social status as well as to personal habits. He says that our occupational mannerisms become so set by the time we are thirty that most of us become perfectly satisfied with our place in life and our function in the social machine. James also insists that our personal tastes, and our habits of speech, thought, and social behavior, are relatively fixed by the time we are twenty, so that we are kept in our social orbit by a law as strong as gravitation.

However, it is important to remember that it is never impossible to shake off an old habit and form a new one. Once a habit has been acquired, it has almost compulsive power over us. But human habits are feely acquired by the choices we make, and can be got rid of and replace by making other choices. No habit, no matter how strong, ever abolishes our freedom to change it. This is the lesson of Shaw’s Pymalion (or My Fair Lady), a delightful dramatization of the power to change habits. Liza Doolittle can and does learn to speak like a lady.