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On Reading and the Power of Ideas

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On political questions therefore I still continued to read and study a great deal. But reading had probably a different significance for me from that which it has for the average run of our so-called ‘intellectuals’.

I know people who read interminably, book after book, from page to page, and yet I should not call them ‘well-read people’. Of course they ‘know’ an immense amount; but their brain seems incapable of assorting and classifying the material which they have gathered from books. They have not the faculty of distinguishing between what is useful and useless in a book; so that they may retain the former in their minds and if possible skip over the latter while reading it, if that be not possible, then–when once read–throw it overboard as useless ballast.

Reading is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. Its chief purpose is to help towards filling in the framework which is made up of the talents and capabilities that each individual possesses. Thus each one procures for himself the implements and materials necessary for the fulfilment of his calling in life, no matter whether this be the elementary task of earning one’s daily bread or a calling that responds to higher human aspirations.

Such is the first purpose of reading. And the second purpose is to give a general knowledge of the world in which we live. In both cases, however, the material which one has acquired through reading must not be stored up in the memory on a plan that corresponds to the successive chapters of the book; but each little piece of knowledge thus gained must be treated as if it were a little stone to be inserted into a mosaic, so that it finds its proper place among all the other pieces and particles that help to form a general world-picture in the brain of the reader. Otherwise only a confused jumble of chaotic notions will result from all this reading. That jumble is not merely useless, but it also tends to make the unfortunate possessor of it conceited. For he seriously considers himself a well-educated person and thinks that he understands something of life. He believes that he has acquired knowledge, whereas the truth is that every increase in such ‘knowledge’ draws him more and more away from real life, until he finally ends up in some sanatorium or takes to politics and becomes a parliamentary deputy.

Such a person never succeeds in turning his knowledge to practical account when the opportune moment arrives; for his mental equipment is not ordered with a view to meeting the demands of everyday life. His knowledge is stored in his brain as a literal transcript of the books he has read and the order of succession in which he has read them. And if Fate should one day call upon him to use some of his book-knowledge for certain practical ends in life that very call will have to name the book and give the number of the page; for the poor noodle himself would never be able to find the spot where he gathered the information now called for. But if the page is not mentioned at the critical moment the widely-read intellectual will find himself in a state of hopeless embarrassment. In a high state of agitation he searches for analogous cases and it is almost a dead certainty that he will finally deliver the wrong prescription.

If that is not a correct description, then how can we explain the political achievements of our Parliamentary heroes who hold the highest positions in the government of the country? Otherwise we should have to attribute the doings of such political leaders, not to pathological conditions but simply to malice and chicanery.

On the other hand, one who has cultivated the art of reading will instantly discern, in a book or journal or pamphlet, what ought to be remembered because it meets one’s personal needs or is of value as general knowledge. What he thus learns is incorporated in his mental analogue of this or that problem or thing, further correcting the mental picture or enlarging it so that it becomes more exact and precise. Should some practical problem suddenly demand examination or solution, memory will immediately select the opportune information from the mass that has been acquired through years of reading and will place this information at the service of one’s powers of judgment so as to get a new and clearer view of the problem in question or produce a definitive solution.

Only thus can reading have any meaning or be worth while.

The speaker, for example, who has not the sources of information ready to hand which are necessary to a proper treatment of his subject is unable to defend his opinions against an opponent, even though those opinions be perfectly sound and true. In every discussion his memory will leave him shamefully in the lurch. He cannot summon up arguments to support his statements or to refute his opponent. So long as the speaker has only to defend himself on his own personal account, the situation is not serious; but the evil comes when Chance places at the head of public affairs such a soi-disant know-it-all, who in reality knows nothing.

From early youth I endeavoured to read books in the right way and I was fortunate in having a good memory and intelligence to assist me. From that point of view my sojourn in Vienna was particularly useful and profitable. My experiences of everyday life there were a constant stimulus to study the most diverse problems from new angles. Inasmuch as I was in a position to put theory to the test of reality and reality to the test of theory, I was safe from the danger of pedantic theorizing on the one hand and, on the other, from being too impressed by the superficial aspects of reality.

“Inasmuch as I was in a position to put theory to the test of reality and reality to the test of theory…” you might be surprised to find out who wrote the quote above.  A few more lines…

This probing into books and newspapers and studying the teachings of Social Democracy reawakened my love for my own people. And thus what at first seemed an impassable chasm became the occasion of a closer affection.

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Written by frrl

April 1, 2010 at 6:32 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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