Monday Morning Insight: John Locke on Reading and Thinking

(Another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)


This week’s quote comes from English philosopher John Locke, who was born on this date in 1632 and whose theory of government influenced the Founding Fathers of the United States, especially in the run-up to the Revolutionary War.

Locke died in 1704, and his Of the Conduct of the Understanding was published posthumously in 1706 and included this passage:

This is something that I think people who read a great deal are apt to be wrong about. Those who have read about everything are thought also to understand everything; but it is not always so. Reading provides the mind only with materials of knowledge; thinking makes what we read ours. It is not enough to cram ourselves with a great load of literary collections; unless we chew them over again—like a cow chewing its cud—they won’t give us strength and nourishment.

Here I make a confession: my own reading is often wide and shallow, and not nearly as deep as I would like or perhaps as it should be. And because I read widely I suppose I might be considered one of “Those who have read about everything” and “are thought also to understand everything” but don’t. What’s more, I’m probably the only one who thinks I understand; I expect most everyone else sees through my pretense.

My favourite book

(Image: “My favourite book,” by Ana, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)


I’m convicted by this quote, then, because I don’t practice it as I should. Particularly this part: “Reading provides the mind only with materials of knowledge; thinking makes what we read ours.” I’d like to put that into practice more consistently, but I feel so many things tugging at my time that I skim things rather than scanning them, and I reserve little time to think deeply about what I’ve read.

So this week I hope to take time to really think about the things I read for my own edification, whether online or in print. (That won’t be easy, with Dragon_Con just a few days away, but I’m going to try.)

Wish me luck!

P.S. If you’re interested, here’s a link to Locke’s Of the Conduct of the Understanding.

Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Monday Morning Insight: Reading, Culture, and Education

(Another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)


Happy Birthday, Ray Bradbury!

Ray Bradbury (22 August 1920 – 5 June 2012), of course, was a prolific and influential author of fantasy and science fiction — he claimed to be a fantasy writer who was labeled a science fiction writer — and one of his most-acclaimed works is Fahrenheit 451, in which the fire department no longer fought fires, but set them: and in particular, set them to burn books. So this quote of his, from the afterword to the 1979 edition of the novel, is quite interesting:

The problem in our country isn’t with books being banned, but with people no longer reading. Look at the magazines, the newspapers around us — it’s all junk, all trash, tidbits of news. The average TV ad has 120 images a minute. Everything just falls off your mind.… You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.

That, of course, was years before social media came on the scene. How much more junk, trash, and tidbits of news do we encounter every day — up to and including this blog post? How short have our attention spans become?

On the platform, reading

(Image: “On the platform, reading,” by Mo Riza, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)


Years later, in a 1996 interview in Playboy, Bradbury said,

Listen, you can’t turn really bright people into robots. You can turn dumb people into robots, but that’s true in every society and system. I don’t know what to do with dumb people, but we must try to educate them along with the sharp kids. You teach a kid to read and write by the second grade, and the rest will take care of itself.

Take that last quote, of the importance of teaching children to read and write at an early age, and think about it in light of what the first warns against: the barrages of images we encounter, the reduction of text to snippets, even today the vapid combinations of text and images known popularly as “memes” (but which insult the very name they carry when you consider that “meme” more broadly means an irreducible element of culture or knowledge).

How hard have we made it for teachers these days? Think about how powerfully children are affected by images and sounds, compared to text. Think about the difficulty of teaching children to read and write who are brought up in this age of constant, cacophonous media — and the importance of doing so, if we are to prepare them to avoid becoming robotic in their thinking.

When I think about that, I’m thankful for parents and others who introduced me to books, and for teachers who helped me get the most out of them (including those who let me sit in the back of the classroom and read while they taught lessons I’d already learned). And I’m especially thankful for teachers who carry on today in the face of the obstacles in front of them.

And I’m thankful for you, taking a bit of time out of your day to read this. I hope it was worth your while, and that you can think of lots of people to thank for your ability to read!

Have an excellent week!

Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmailby feather