When I first began seriously reading, I read a few practical books on the practice of reading, such as Mortimer Adler’s famous How to Read a Book.
These guides to reading were helpful. They taught me the critical reading process — the steps you should take to effectively read a book and form a critical opinion about it. Some of the techniques they offered were invaluable.
But these books also had a slight demotivating effect on me that until recently I hadn’t noticed. They made reading seem incredibly complex, which made it seem intimidating, perhaps even scary at times.
And so I adopted the harmful mindset that reading must be executed perfectly each time. I had to exercise my judgment, memory, reason, and reflection at maximum capacity, or else it wasn’t worth doing at all.
For example, when reading history, I thought that I needed to identify the main points and recite them in my own words at the end of the chapter from memory.
If I felt that I wasn’t capable of doing these two things, because of lack of energy or concentration, I decided not to read history.
The same goes for if I wasn’t in the right reading environment. If I was in a bus station there was no way I’d read it as well as Mortimer Adler expects me to, so why read at all.
I’d made reading out to be some super challenging endeavor that only the caffeinated, locked in, wide awake, ivory tower version of myself could do. And this is total bull. I was afflicted by perfectionism.
It’s like how many some would-be writers rarely write because they feel there are so many potential mistakes lying in wait for them at every step of the process. They say, “hey, if I’m not going to write as well as my best self, why do it at all?”
Some people have it even worse and say to themselves, “if I can’t write like Shakespeare then what is the point of writing? Only when I get as good as him will I write.” But the problem with this is that the only way to get better at writing is to write! The same goes for reading.
A writer like Steven Pressfield, Author of The War of Art (an excellent book), would call my reading perfectionism a manifestation of resistance, an evil self-generated force that tries to get you to neglect the things you know you should be doing.
And because reading well is important to me, because I love books, the resistance is strong and better able to keep me from doing my reading.
“Resistance is directly proportional to love. If you’re feeling massive Resistance, the good news is that it means there’s tremendous love there too.”Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
Resistance in the case of reading would usually speak to me like this — “Sam, it’s 7 pm. You’ve done a lot of cognitively demanding work today. Do you really thing you’re going to be able to retain a high percentage of what you read in this book, or successfully parse these philosophical arguments? No? I didn’t think so. Reading is hard. You’ll fail at it tonight. So why don’t you go grab a bag of chips and watch tv instead!”
The truth is that even if I am a bit tired, that doesn’t mean I can’t read well. And even if I’m reading at 50% effectiveness, that’s better than not reading at all.
Anyway, a lot of the time, when I do feel like I won’t be able to read well, and then I pick up a book anyway, I still have an amazing experience and end up getting a lot out of my reading session.
Therefore, while it’s important to try to practice active reading, don’t worry so much about doing it well every time. Don’t worry about being in the perfect headspace or environment either.
Just pick up that book that’s staring at you from your couch and start reading it. Odds are you’ll perform well, and even if you don’t, even if you don’t notice all the important motifs or symbols, arguments or evidence, even if you don’t remember all the experiments or beautiful quotes, you’ll still learn a lot.
I think this is especially important for autodidacts, self-directed learners, who, without a teacher to tell them they’re on the right path, might worry incessantly about the quality of their studies. I know I’ve felt this way.
So please, do yourself a favor and don’t worry about reading perfectly. If you’re worrying so much about reading books well, it probably means you’re improving at the skill and doing it better than most people studying at school anyway.