The Value of Reading Things We Disagree with
Reading has always had a central and prestigious place in our understanding of how we can develop our minds. The more we read, we’re told, the cleverer we stand to be. We need to read because we can’t do it all by ourselves; the fundamental point of reading is to acquire the good ideas of other people. However true this might be, we can nevertheless point to another, perhaps less familiar purpose to reading that is as important in terms of developing our minds: reading provides us with a superlative occasion on which to unearth and put into focus what we happen to think. It’s through contact with the books of others that we are sometimes best able to come to a clearer sense of our perspectives and ideas. The words of someone else can powerfully draw out our hitherto hesitant and disjointed notions; it is contact with another’s intelligence that may bring our own into new relief.
Even before we reach the specific content of a book, a basic benefit of alighting on one that covers a topic we’re interested in is that its existence provides an implicit endorsement of the thinking-task ahead of us. In daily life, the people in the vicinity often don’t want to reflect on exactly what concerns us at a given time; a topic we’re curious about might be covered in just a few minutes at the table or dismissed as too complicated even to approach. But when we find a book on the subject we care about but are lonely with, we have evidence of an extraordinary commitment made by a serious stranger, which bolsters our sense of the legitimacy of the thinking challenge we face.
Someone else has seen fit to devote years of their life to our theme, and gathered fifty or a hundred-thousand words in its honour – a devotion made all the more tangible by the gold lettering on the spine, the logo of a venerable publisher, the rich cream paper and an elegant blue bookmark. Whatever might actually be inside, this is proof already that the thinking-task is in principle a serious one; with this book in our lap, it no longer seems quite so peculiar to want to think in a sustained way about urban design or the future of marriage, child psychology or income differentials in developed countries. We are encouraged to start our own brains by evidence of the developed thoughts of another person.
Once we start to read the book itself, the benefits to our own train of thought continues. We’re used to imagining that it’s the ideas explicitly stated in the book that will enrich us, but we may not need the full thoughts of another person to start to come to a better sense of what we ourselves believe. Often, just a few paragraphs or even parts of sentences can be sufficient to provoke our minds – and can leave us inclined to stop, daydream and reach for a notebook in which we jot down, not the thought that we’ve read, but the thought that it prompted inside us, which might be quite a different thing. The book frames the topic for us, it puts the right question to us, it functions as the three dots that start a ball rolling… – and we do the rest.
Then, most valuably, at times, we are privileged to disagree entirely with a book – and are richly rewarded for doing so. Whatever the charms of an author with whose views we concur perfectly, nothing can quite beat the service sometimes paid to us by one who we feel is tantalisingly off tangent, an author who starts to say something interesting, but then (in our eyes) goes resolutely off piste, an author who hovers close to an essential point but then drops it in favour of something maddeningly trivial, misguided or irrelevant. Assisted by the author’s ploughing of the intellectual landscape, our personal thoughts can start to germinate in a deeply authentic and vivid direction. We put down the book and find a whole portion of our own thinking revealed to us. Our argument with the author powers our own reflection. By not saying what we quite wished to hear, the author brings us into newfound contact with what we truly believe, and does us the immense service of releasing us from our intellectual underconfidence and languor.
The German 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant once famously credited the Scottish 18th-century philosopher David Hume for teaching him how to think – but, in a nuance to the usual such tribute, added that Hume had done this not by lending him a set of ideas with which he could agree but by laying out with elegance and precision a whole class of intellectual positions from which (as he now saw) he passionately dissented. Reading Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding had, said Kant, powerfully woken him from his ‘dogmatic slumber’ and directly inspired him to arrange his objections into what would turn out to be his masterpiece, The Critique of Pure Reason.
We are all so much the poorer if all we can do is agree with the books we read.
The role of books in reminding us of what we think through our inner arguments with them changes our sense of what an ideal curriculum might look like. It may include the sensible masterpieces of course, but there is all the more reason to find space in it for all the books that are fruitfully not very good or fascinatingly misconstrued or inspiringly erratic. So-called bad books might, when considered as a tool for thinking, be just as effective as the acknowledged good ones – and sometimes a lot better – for as we turn their pages, they allow us secretly to imagine our own, superior versions of what we are taking in.
The practice of thinking-reading should be distinguished from reading-reading, and venerated on its own terms. We should at times – as we turn the pages – get very interested not only in what the author is about to say but, as importantly, we might start to pay very special attention to what we are about to think.