Reading Through a Thousand Eyes

By Balaji Prasad

“The reading of all good books is like a
conversation with the finest minds of past centuries."
~ Rene Descartes

If you are reading this article, you are, undoubtedly, a reader! You stopped by either because you hoped to get some enjoyment from the reading, or thought you might gain some insights to help in pursuits of interest to you. We do a lot of things towards getting a better grasp on the world around us. We also spend a fair amount of time on getting entertained and finding enjoyment in our day-to-day lives. So should we not expect the same from our reading?

Reading is critical

Reading is a foundational capability. If there is something we might think of as a sixth sense, this could be it! We gain knowledge through the experiences that our other five senses – taste, touch, hearing, sight and smell – open up for us. However, this sixth one is what brings countless voices from different places and different times together into our present moment. Those voices come from sights seen, and sensations felt by vast numbers of people whose voices would be inaccessible to us, were it not for their writing and our reading. The medium between them and us is our portal into their world, enabling a part of their world to enter ours. Surely there is value in not to have to learn everything through the school of hard knocks? This is exactly what we get when we hear from others through their writings: People like Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Rabindranath Tagore, and P.G. Wodehouse sitting side by side with J.K. Rowling, Oprah Winfrey and Neil deGrasse Tyson. They say so much, and we could receive so much, if we decide that it is worth our time to do so … and read what they wrote.

Reading allows us, therefore, to transcend our five senses, and see through a thousand eyes, not just through the single pair that each of us owns. But reality is always a bit more nuanced than good or bad; there is a dark side to seeing through other people's eyes. And, if we are not careful, we could end up absorbing things that put us on the wrong track.

Critical reading is critical

Ultimately, the only world that each of us knows is inside our heads, and runs through the neural network that underpins our thinking. So ideas and concepts from other people's heads need to be assimilated and synthesized with what already exists, so that it all continues to make sense in our individual and unique little world. So when we read, we need to be aware of not only what we read but also of what we already “know". This aspect of self-awareness that we bring to the reading task is one part of what might think of as “critical reading".

There is more to critical reading than just self-awareness. Specifically, we need to be “other-aware" – that we are getting indirect information that is created by other people. It is not just a thousand eyes that are a conduit to our minds via reading; there are also a thousand I's between the indirect experiences from other people and us. Each writer brings his or her own worldview, perspective, biases, prejudices, and belief system into the writing that we read so eagerly. There is music within all that writing, but there is noise as well. And, some of that noise can damage us, if we take it in, unfiltered.

Of late, there has been a lot of concern about “fake news". The fact is that fake news has been part of society from the day there were at least two human beings on the planet. Critical readers everywhere have known this forever, and so cast a doubtful eye on all that they read, knowing that meaning lies not just in the eyes of the beholder, but also in the voice of the teller of tales. But the times we live in demand even more criticality from us, because of the rapidity with which information spreads. Also, as things get said over and over again by different voices with different nuances, suddenly a single author begins to sound like a million voices chanting the same mantra in unison. It is all too easy to fall under the illusion that decibel level is a reasonable proxy for quality, and begin to trust what we hear in what is a very loud echo chamber. So we need each of us to be critical readers. This is critical!

Breeding the reading

Reading is an unnatural activity. Literally! It is not like walking, eating and other capabilities that are organic within us, and develop through natural means without our even trying to excel at these activities. Somewhere, somehow, we figured out that we could carve little squiggles that can stand in for the real things that exist in this world. When everyone agreed to some shared meaning for these squiggles, we had the ability to communicate via the written word. And then Gutenberg happened. The writing spread. And in the twentieth century, the Internet happened. The writing went viral. There are writers everywhere and readers everywhere now. So the ability to read, and to read critically, has become that much more important. Since writing is more or less open to anyone now, some of the quality checks of the past have fallen by the wayside; critical reading is even more critical now.

One way to become good at reading is to do much more of it. The more you read, the more you develop techniques and tricks to help you read better. Also, the more you read, the more it becomes a part of you, a part that you employ not only to gain information, but also to derive pleasure.

Besides brute force, which certainly works, it is possible to step up reading ability by learning from an expert reader who has cultivated this expertise. Just as with any other skill, such as music, some top-down learning can be a valuable augmentation of a bottom-up brute force approach to learning.

For some, like our high schoolers, being a good reader is not optional. Performance in school tests and college admission tests such as the SAT and ACT absolutely mandate that you be a great reader.

Breed the reader in you, by reading the right kinds of things, using the right techniques, along with, of course, the right attitude towards reading. You are the breeder first, of reading, before you are the reader. And, the stronger, your breeding skills grow, the stronger your reading skills. Breed on!