“Without friends I feel as if even my music and books and interests would turn stale on my hands. I confess that I am not grown up enough to get along without them.”— Richard Bourne, The Handicapped
I doubt I’ll ever be grown up enough to get along without my friends. They’re a constant source of laughter, fun, and meaning for me, and more recently, also a boon to my self-education.
Over the past couple months my grade school friend and I have been reading the same books, European histories and classic novels mostly, and then discussing them on Zoom every few weeks.
It started out naturally, but lately we have formalized it a bit, going as far as to set the goal of reading the entire Penguin History of Europe series together.
How Reading Buddies Help You Read Deeply & Retain More
Knowing that I’ll have to discuss what I’m reading with a friend, a sharp and relatively disagreeable one at that, inspires me to:
- Read more deeply
- Take better notes and marginalia
- Truly engage with the text
- And, most importantly, to formulate and clearly express my thoughts about the book and its arguments, stories, characters, language, and scenes.
And when it comes time to discuss, I always find that my friend has noticed something that escaped my attention. I have the luxury of a second mind, different than mine and therefore prone to observing things that I couldn’t.
And by talking about the book out loud, with true passion, I feel as if what I’ve learned or appreciated is more deeply drilled into me. Scenes of novels and the meaning I ascribed to them stick with me afterwards, and I often find myself able to recount entire passages days after the discussion.
Most of my self-education journey has been solitary. To be honest, I believe I’ve been afraid to do something like discuss a book and argue for what I think it means, or whether I agree with the interpretation of the events.
I thought that I had to get to a certain level of knowledge and reading ability before I could start talking about books and ideas. But I was wrong, and doing myself a disservice. For I was skipping an essential aspect of the learning process, the rhetoric stage — giving an opinion on what you read.
The Rhetoric Stage of Reading
In classical education, there is a fundamental concept of education called the trivium, a three-staged approach to learning.
Here are its three stages:
- Grammar (Absorb): Learn the concepts, ideas, characters, etc.,
- Logic (Understand): Analyze the text to understand the argument or the story. Critical thinking begins.
- Rhetoric (Apply): Share nuanced, informed, and perhaps even sophisticated opinions about what you’ve read. Practicing expressing the results of your critical thinking articulately.
Susan Wise Bauer, in her book The Well Educated Mind, goes much more into detail about how to do this and I recommend reading it if you’re serious about self-education.
She recommends doing all three stages for each book you want to truly own, make a part of you.
Technically, the rhetoric stage can be done through essays, whether that’s a response paper to a particular novel or an essay answering a question that came out of your reading, like “what were the main factors in the cause of the civil war?” after reading 5 books on the topic.
But, unless you’re creating video essays on YouTube, or in school, it’s really hard to get yourself to write these kinds of essays for every book you read.
A short book review is effective as well. Montaigne would write a paragraph on the book he read on the end flap and date it.
These are rhetoric exercises, but talking with people I find is sometimes more effective, and more fun.
Since there’s a performance element to it, even if it’s your friend, you’re also held accountable to actually do the deep reading and deep thinking required of succeeding at the rhetoric phase.
It also happens to be a great way to spend an evening. A few beers with a friend talking about what you loved, what you hated, what worked and what didn’t.
If reading more deeply and improving your communication skills are the initial goals of doing this, the strengthening of your friendships is the pleasant surprise.