Last week I explored why I believe reading challenging and controversial books is a beneficial practice — a skill I’m calling resilient reading. After publishing that post, though, I realized it might be worth exploring some disciplines that make resilient reading tenable.
This article is something of a collaboration with my friend Carrie Poppy who helped me brainstorm the four disciplines that follow. Give her your thanks by binging every single episode of her podcast Oh No, Ross and Carrie!
Let me offer my definition of resilient reading:
The act of reading challenging literature outside your comfort zone in such a way that it strengthens your mind rather than weakens it.
The word “challenging” is doing a lot of work here. I include in the category of “challenging” books I hate, books that are bad, books I disagree with, books that are important but hard to get through, and books that contain destructive or hateful ideas.
There are a lot of practices that lay the groundwork for doing this well, though, and those include:
Practice 1: Read a lot
Reading challenging books is only sustainable if you already have a consistent practice of reading a lot.
If you read 1-10 books a year, that’s fantastic. But that also means that reading something you don’t enjoy is 10-100% of your reading for that given year, and that’s just not worth it. Who would want to punish themselves like that? When I get through 10 books a year, I prefer to invest that energy in material that bolsters my delight in reading. This is a strategic choice because it means that I will keep reading instead of running aground on a book I hate.
If, however, you get through 50-150 books a year, then throwing in some books you don’t enjoy or find invidious isn’t a great sacrifice. I read an average of 50 books a year, and the vast majority of it is stuff I love. It’s mostly horror, true crime, philosophy, and high fantasy. Since so much of my reading is stuff that I already take delight in, I can justify throwing in some stuff that I don’t.
Something miraculous happens when you read a lot. The books themselves become more than the sum of their parts, and a vast network of associations is built between them. The more you read, the more valuable reading becomes. When you read a lot, books are no longer merely repositories of knowledge or conduits of pleasure. They are, rather, vehicles for the formation of the self.
It’s impossible to describe this effect until you’ve experienced it. I’ve read a lot of dross over the years, and I recently found myself wondering if I thought any of it was a waste of time. And the answer, genuinely, was no — there is not a single book I regret reading, because it becomes cross-referenced and compounded by the other books I’ve read. Reading a book, even a bad book, becomes an important insight into human nature, especially if it is read in the context of other books.
This all means that a challenging book is substantially less valuable the less you read other books, and more valuable the more books you have in your inner library to cross-reference it with.
It’s worth stating here that, if you struggle with reading, that’s ok. I do too. I still need to read with my finger most of the time, or else my eye loses its place on the page, and I tend to be excruciatingly slow. This is why I try not to obsess a great deal over how many books I get through. I instead focus on reading daily.
Practice 2: Diversify your information diet and be congnizant of the Mere Exposure Effect
There is genuine danger in exploring the ideas of others, especially if those ideas are toxic, and it is this: we come to prefer something the more we are exposed to it. This is called the Mere Exposure Effect, and it is why, if you start binge-reading Titanic Truther content, you will come to prefer that content over more rational information. This is dangerous and explains how a huge number of otherwise intelligent people get sucked into some form of online radicalization.
We all know that person who has some interpersonal clash or personal crisis and becomes intensely disillusioned with their social circle. They start to talk about just wanting to have “honest conversation” and “explore ideas”. This is, in theory, a good and noble thing. But then the slide into the abyss happens and the next thing you know they are talking about reptilians, or race realism, or the Great Replacement.
So, if you are going to spend time exploring challenging ideas, understand that your mind is profoundly faulty and riddled with cognitive glitches and that you will come to prefer the content you are consuming if you stay there too long. This means you must deliberately diversify your information diet. If you find yourself spending lots of time in one particular sphere, deliberately explore other areas and opposing ideas. This isn’t a surefire way to ensure you don’t fall down the rabbit hole, but it is a safeguard.
Practice 3: Make reading your primary mode of investigating the world
This brings me back to one of my central arguments of last week’s post: reading is the safest way to engage reality. A great deal of online radicalization happens not through books and articles but through audio and video. This is because the algorithms and nature of the mediums make us primed for passive engagement. As I discussed in my podcast episode with the hosts of Decoding the Gurus, it’s so easy to passively let the ideas in a podcast or video wash over us in a sort of hypnotic background noise. And podcasts and videos usually don’t include citations.
Reading isn’t like that. Reading is work and requires deliberate engagement in a way that is not true of podcasts or videos. Reading, by its nature, makes me less vulnerable to the mere exposure effect.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Youtube and podcasts! I have a podcast myself. But it is imperative that we not let Youtube or podcasts be our primary mode of searching for truth. If you hear someone on Youtube or a podcast that intrigues you, always follow it up by reading their work, if they have any.
I practiced this myself when it came to the right-wing gay commentator Douglas Murray. In interviews, Murray is suave, poetic, and compelling. He speaks with pathos and conviction and is one of those rare commentators who can speak in full, coherent paragraphs. I found myself substantially challenged by his speaking.
And then I read his books, and it became obvious to me that he was a brilliant polemicist who gave lip service to ideals of critical thought while engaging in a number of underhanded intellectual tricks. Stopping at merely listening to Murray would have been disastrous for me. I learned a great deal from Murray, and one of those lessons was the dangers of listening without reading.
(It’s worth noting that sometimes the opposite happens: I will hear someone who sounds like a hack, but their writing is compelling.)
You might protest that this requires time and energy and that there isn’t enough time in the day to investigate every claim. That’s the point! That’s why reading is so valuable. Reading slows you down. Reading is hard and requires deliberate engagement. And this brings me back to why Practice 1 is so important: you are less likely to do the hard work of reading people you come across online if you don’t already have a consistent reading practice.
Practice 4: Charitably articulate opposing viewpoints
John Stuart Mill wrote,
He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion… Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them…he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.
The greatest temptation for all of us is to find a perspective that feels good and then simply nestle in and stay there. I’m confident that we weren’t evolved to be rational mechanisms calibrated for truth-seeking, but instead apes concerned first and foremost with our standing among our peers.
So the final rule is this: if you find yourself preferring a particular viewpoint, be sure that you can clearly and charitably explain the opposing views, and not only to your own satisfaction but to the satisfaction of those who actually hold them. I believe that reading is the best way to go about learning the perspectives of others.
This will keep you honest. To rephrase Jeremiah 17:9, human cognitive distortions are deceitful above all things. We desperately want to believe that we are right, and we want the good feelings of validation that come from our peers. It’s ok (necessary, in fact) to come to particular viewpoints and conclusions about reality. We can’t function without that process. But, in doing so, keep yourself honest by clearly articulating why others believe you are wrong.