A number of years ago I read a book called How to Read a Book (1940), by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. It’s not some postmodernist meta-referential literature; it’s non-fiction that teaches the art of absorbing letters.
I was mocked for taking it seriously. (After all, what is there to reading?)
The book pointed out some useful techniques, of which one at least has become almost a reflex. I call it book pigeonholing.
Rule 1. You must know what kind of book you are reading, and you should know this as early in the process as possible, preferably before you begin to read.
Knowing what type of text you’re approaching determines your point of view. For example, reading a short fictional story versus a piece of investigative journalism changes your willingness to suspend disbelief and apply critical thinking.
Pigeonholing a piece of writing is usually done first by source: where did you find it, who wrote it, is it a trustworthy source, is it fiction, etc. Then by title and subtitle: as I’ve discussed these past two weeks in terms of non-fiction, the most successful titles are designed to resonate with the content (as well as “hook” the reader). Next come any prefaces or pictures or graphs or other information.
Ultimately, it’s all to do with expectation. The closer a reader’s initial expectation is to the actual experience, the higher the likelihood they’ll be satisfied. This is why blurbs or advertisements ought to be representative; and why we have the divisions into fiction and non-fiction, into literary and genre, into YA and adult; and why websites tell you the expected reading time of an article or the particular skill set or information you will glean.
So things have changed since 1940.
Modern readers are, if anything, hyper-attuned to categorising texts within a vast, finely-divided loft and then always returning to pick from the same few pigeonholes. Because who wants to spend valuable time perusing far afield only to have their expectations dashed? More specifically, who wants to start reading a book and then have to abandon it halfway through because it’s not “enjoyable”? It’s easier to find a safe, familiar sphere and stay there.
(When this happens to your online information sources—due to personalised search results or recommendations services—it’s called the filter bubble.)
Am I advocating that you become a randomised reading machine, or that you switch to the experimental fiction? No. I’m not even saying anyone should cram unpalatable material down their metaphorical throats for the sake of a “broader horizon”. That’s a bad idea that creates unnecessary indigestion.
However, I do advocate the guiding principle of Quiver Quotes: diverse content sparks diverse thoughts.
Learning to enjoy (your own brand of) variety is a time-consuming process: you have to know in which domain you can stretch yourself, you have to be able to recognise a receptive mood, you have to become competent at kindling curiosity where there is none. It’s a never-ending process that travels within an ever-widening web. One could even put it as: live and learn to read.
But Quiver Quotes isn’t that diverse, you say.
True. To each their own limitations.
Of course, I have a cultural backdrop and a family history.
Of course, I have bounded knowledge.
Of course, I have interests and inclinations that move in cycles with the weather.
I am human, therefore I am biased by my very desire to continue existing. But within any one mind, and under the aegis of that mind’s reining voice, I believe many other disparate—and dissenting—voices can be heard. Should be heard.