sophie reading

How to master the art of reading: essential tips for tackling the Great Books

Nov 16, 2017

It takes a long time to learn how to read well.

I'm not talking about learning how to read—you did that before you were six—but how to read well. After all, we learn how to walk by our second birthday, but to become an Olympic runner takes many years. And so with reading. Certainly, it has taken me decades.


Some reading is as easy or hard as you want. A romance novel to pass the time is fun, and I never struggle to read the daily newspaper comics or my favorite web comic (XKCD, anyone?) but works of significance require effort.

As a scientist with a philosophical and social justice bent, I mostly read non-fiction, and I have spent decades honing my ability to read that genre. I've learned three key questions that I need to apply to a reading, things to ask the author about while I'm reading:

- What are you saying? What is your conclusion or what is the content of your work?

- What is your argument? Are your logic and your evidence good or are you using just rhetoric and style to convince me and the rest of your audience?   (In our post-facts world, this is a key thing to keep in mind.)

- What are your assumptions—especially the hidden and implicit ones—and do they seem reasonable?

I've also learned that, while anyone might find it natural to use one or two of these questions, no one finds all of them easy to use. We all need help learning how to read well.

I'm a scientist by training and temperament. I'm naturally good with objective facts. I can roll out the Pythagorean theorem, the structure of DNA or the hertzsprung-russell diagram in a flash. (OK, you haven't heard of the H-R diagram (unless you're an astronomy nut like me), but google it and look at the images. It's very colorful and beautiful as well as informative!)

But teasing out an author's hidden assumptions are much harder for me. And while I naturally handle the literal and logical parts of an argument, I need to pay attention to understand allusive and metaphorical points.

Literature-oriented folk often handle metaphor and allusion well, but may glaze over and stumble on the dryness of logic and facts. And yet others may get inside the head of the author's assumptions but miss the plain and obvious. We all have different natural tendencies when reading, and it takes effort to learn to ask the other, equally essential, questions.

I tell people that I started teaching in the Shimer Great Books program in order to finally complete my education. After a couple of decades conducting scientific research and teaching at other places, the Great Books (and my great fellow teachers) in the Shimer school have broadened my views, sharpened my intellect, and enhanced my learning skills.

It is in our discussion-style classes, studying the original works of history’s greatest minds and wrestling with age old questions alongside other great minds and fellow Shimer colleagues, that you learn not what, but how to think—how to construct an argument, to listen for truth in the words of your opponent, and to apply your newly-found wisdom to the present-day issues of society.

What’s more, the questions and challenges posed by my students in those discussions have also pushed me to consider and reformulate my own thoughts and assumptions while the students serve as fellow travelers on the road to wisdom.

Decades later, I'm finally able to read and learn well. See: the Shimer Great Books School works its magic on its teachers as well as its students.

james donovan

- Authored by James Donovan, Dr. James Donovan is a visiting professor at the Shimer Great Books School at North Central College.