For most of my childhood, and even into my young adult life, I considered reading a uniform and “basic” activity, one engaged in to gather information or by which to be entertained. As I entered the last few years of high school, and especially as I began to be drawn to imaginative writers (novelists, dramatists, and, increasingly, poets), I realized that there were qualitative differences in the writers themselves, and started to realize that reading was more than just an attempt to remember what writers said, and instead called for a more mature approach, one that required me to analyze what their words meant, and, eventually, to evaluate the truth of their work not only from my individual perspective, but also as a way to join with so many others who, both before and after me, have taken part or will take part in The Great Conversation.
Mortimer Adler’s articulation of the levels of reading in How to Read A Book helped me better consider what I had intuited as a developing reader: moving beyond the elementary level of reading was much more taxing on my mind, and would require me to develop not only different techniques, but a different mindset altogether as a reader. Although I had certainly engaged in some inspectional reading, analytical reading, and even some unconscious evaluative/syntopical reading, it wasn’t until I entered college and discovered my desire to become an English major, and eventually an English teacher, that I became more conscious of the power books had, especially Great Books, to develop our intellectual, emotional, and spiritual capacities. More than just a means of gathering information about the world, or of being entertained, books, reading books—in particular, re-reading, ruminating on, and evaluating their ideas—forced me to see them as the endless fonts of wisdom I have found them to be. What does it say? What does it mean? Is it true?—these questions, once articulated for me by Adler, Hutchins, and others, helped me to become a better learner, teacher, and, I’d like to think, a wiser and more compassionate human being.
Perhaps the most important reason to recognize the different levels of reading is that it helps one begin to emerge from the natural, egoistic state in which we too often seem to dwell. Just as Adler points out that each of the levels are subsumed in the one that follows, and that there is a recursive quality in the way we deploy them as readers, so, too, is there a recursive quality about the way we interact with the minds and hearts of others as readers and thinkers. Because egoism is our default state, we filter the information we take in, especially as readers and thinkers, through a set of pre-conceived and often unconscious lenses, and this colors not only what we come to understand but our ability to move beyond an elementary understanding at all. In many cases, no growth can occur when we employ such a narrow, unconscious, technique in our reading; it is only when we begin to consciously inspect our assumptions, analyze the alien thoughts of others, and evaluate their larger significance that we begin to approach what might be called a more enlightened understanding of the world around us.
In the polarized, ideologically blind world too many of us inhabit in the twenty-first century, perhaps the only antidote to our inability to bridge the great divides that seem to separate us from one another is to revive The Great Conversation, even if just as individual readers at first. Perhaps our willingness to entertain and think through the great ideas with which so many of the great writers and thinkers before us struggled will help us to close the gap that seems to isolate so many of us from one another; indeed, while we will surely notice the fierce debate that has raged concerning the perennial questions confronting humanity, perhaps we will grow not only in humility, but also renew the hope that wisdom and progress are always within, if just beyond, our collective grasp.