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16 - HOW TO READ HISTORY “History,” like “poetry,” is a word of many meanings. In order for this chapter to be useful to you, we must come to terms with you about the word-that is, explain how we will be using it.
First of all, there is the difference between history as fact and history as a written record of the facts. We are obviously, here, employing the term in the latter sense, since in our sense of “read” you cannot read facts. But there are many kinds of written record that are called historical A collection of documents pertaining to a certain event or period could be called a history of it. A transcription of an oral interview with a participant, or a collection of such transcriptions, could similarly be called a history of the event in which he or they participated.
A work having quite a different intention, such as a personal diary or collection of letters, could be construed as being a history of the time. The word could be applied, and indeed has been applied, to almost every kind of writing that originated in a time period, or in the context of an event, in which the reader was interested.
The sense in which we use the word “history” in what follows is both narrower and broader than any of those. It is narrower because we want to restrict ourselves to essentially narrative accounts, presented in a more or less formal manner, of a period or event or series of events in the past. This is a traditional use of the term, and we do not apologize for it.
Again, as with our definition of lyric poetry, we think you will agree with us that this is the ordinary meaning of the term, and we want to stick to the ordinary here.
But our meaning is also broader than many of the definitions of the term that are current today. We think, although not all historians agree with us, that the essence of history is narration, that the last five letters of the word-“story”-help us to understand the basic meaning. Even a collection of documents, as a collection, tells a story. That story may not be explicit , that is, the historian may try not to arrange the documents in any “meaningful” order. But it is implicit in them, whether they are ordered or not. Otherwise, we think, the collection would not be called a history of its time.
It is not important, however, whether all historians agree with us in our notion of what history is. There is a great deal of history of the kind we are discussing, and you will want to or have to read at least some of it. We will try to aid you in that task.
The Elusiveness of Historical Facts Probably you have been a member of a jury, listening to the testimony about a simple matter of fact, such as an automobile accident. Or you may have been on a blue ribbon jury, and have had to decide whether one person killed another or not. If you have done either, you know how difficult it is to reconstruct the past, even a single event in the past, from the memories of persons who actually saw it happen.
A court concerns itself with events that have happened fairly recently and in the presence of living witnesses. In addition, there are stringent rules of evidence. A witness cannot suppose anything, he cannot guess or hypothecate or estimate (except under very carefully controlled conditions) . And of course he is not supposed to lie.
With all the careful rules of evidence, and cross-examination besides, have you ever been absolutely sure, as a member of a jury, that you really knew what happened?
The law assumes that you will not be absolutely sure. It assumes that there will always be some doubt in a juror’s mind.
As a matter of practice, in order that trials may be decided one way or the other, it says that the doubt must be “reasonable” if it is to be allowed to affect your judgment. The doubt must be, in other words, sufficient to trouble your conscience.
A historian is concerned with events that occurred, most of them, a long time ago. All the witnesses to the events are usually dead. What evidence they give is not given in a courtroom-that is, it is not governed by stringent and careful rules.
Such witnesses as there are often guess, hypothecate, estimate, assume, and suppose. We cannot see their faces in order to judge whether they are lying (if we ever really can know that about anybody). They are not cross-examined. And there is no guarantee whatever that they know what they are talking about.
If, then, it is difficult to be sure that one knows about the truth of a relatively simple matter, such as is decided by a jury in a court of law, how much more difficult it is to know what really happened in history. A historical fact, though we may have a feeling of trust and solidity about the word, is one of the most elusive things in the world.
Of course, about some kinds of historical fact we can be pretty certain. America was involved in a Civil War that began with the firing on Fort Sumter, on April 12, 1861, and ended with the surrender of General Lee to General Grant at Appomattox Court House, on April 9, 1865. Everyone agrees about those dates. It is not likely (though it is not totally impossible) that every American calendar was incorrect at that time.
But how much have we learned if we know exactly when the Civil War started and when it ended? Indeed, those dates have been disputed-not on the grounds that the calendars were wrong, but that the war really started with the election of Lincoln in the fall of 1860 and ended with his assassination five days after Lee’s surrender. Others have claimed that the war started even earlier-as much as five or ten or twenty years before 1861-and we know that it was still actually being fought in outlying parts of the United States, to which word had not yet come of the Northern triumph, as late as May, June, and July, 1865. And there are those, too, who feel that the Civil War is not over yet, that it will never be over until black Americans are completely free and equal, or until the South manages to secede from the Union, or until the right of the federal government to control all the states is finally established and accepted by every American everywhere.
At least we do know, one might say, that whether or not the firing on Fort Sumter started the Civil War, it did occur on April 12, 1861. That is true-within the limits of possibility we referred to before. But why was Sumter fired on? That is an obvious next question. And could war still have been avoided after the attack? If it had been, would we care that such and such an assault occurred on such and such a spring day more than a century ago? If we did not care-and we do not care about many attacks on forts that have doubtless occurred, but about which we know nothing whatever-would the firing on Sumter still be a significant historical fact?
Theories of History We class history, the story of the past, more often under fiction than under science-if it must be affiliated with one or the other. If not, if history, that is, is allowed to rest somewhere in between the two main divisions of the kinds of books, then it is usually admitted that history is closer to fiction than to science.
This does not mean that a historian makes up his facts, like a poet or story teller. However, we might get into trouble if we insisted too strongly that a writer of fiction makes up his facts. He creates a world, as we have said. But this new world is not totally different from our own-indeed, it had better not be-and a poet is an ordinary man, with ordinary senses by and through which he has learned. He does not see things that we cannot see (he may see better or in a slightly different way) . His characters use words that we use (otherwise we could not believe in them). It is only in dreams that human beings create really strange new worlds-yet even in the most fantastic dream the events and creatures of the imagination are made up out of elements of everyday experience. They are merely put together in strange new ways.
A good historian does not, of course, make up the past.
He considers himself responsibly bound by some concept or criterion of accuracy or facts. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the historian must always make up something.
He must either find a general pattern in, or impose one on, events; or he must suppose that he knows why the persons in his story did the things they did. He may have a general theory or philosophy, such as that Providence rules human affairs, and make his history fit that. Or he may abjure any such pattern, imposed as it were from the outside or above, and instead insist that he is merely reporting the real events that have occurred. But in that case he is likely to be forced to assign causes for events and motivations for actions. It is essential to recognize which way the historian you are reading is operating.
The only way to avoid taking either one or the other position is to assume that men do not do things for a purpose, or that the purpose, if it exists, is undiscoverable -in other words, that there is no pattern to history at all.
Tolstoy had such a theory about history. He was not a historian, of course; he was a novelist. But many historians have held the same view, particularly in modern times. The causes of every human action, Tolstoy thought, were so manifold, so complex, and so deeply hidden in unconscious motivations that it is impossible to know why anything ever happened.
Because theories of history differ, and because a historian’s theory affects his account of events, it is necessary to read more than one account of the history of an event or period if we want to understand it. Indeed, this is the first rule of reading history. And it is all the more important if the event in which we are interested has practical significance for us. It is probably of practical significance to all Americans that they know something about the history of the Civil War. We still live in the backwash of that great and sorry conflict; we live in a world it helped to make. But we cannot hope to understand it if we look at it through the eyes of only one man, or one side, or one faction of modern academic historians. The other day we opened a new Civil War history and noted that its author offered it as “an impartial, objective history of the Civil War from the point of view of the South.” The author appeared to be serious. Maybe he was; maybe such a thing is possible. At any rate, we would admit that every narrative history has to be written from some point of view. But to get at the truth, we ought to look at it from more than one viewpoint.
The Universal in History We are not always able to read more than one history of an event. When we are not, we must admit that we do not have much chance of learning the truth of the matter in question-of learning what really happened. However, that is not the only reason to read history. It might be claimed that only the professional historian, the man who is writing a history himself, is required to cross-examine his sources by exhaustively checking one against the other. He must leave no stone unturned if he is to know what he ought to know about his subject. We, as lay readers of history, stand somewhere between the professional historian, on the one hand, and the irresponsible amateur, on the other hand, who reads history only for amusement.
Let us take the example of Thucydides. You may be aware that he wrote the only major contemporary history of the Peloponnesian War at the end of the fifth century B.C. In a sense, there is nothing to check his work against. What, then, can we expect to learn from it?
Greece is now a tiny country; a war that occurred there twenty-five centuries ago can have little real effect on our life today. Everyone who fought in it is long dead, and the specific things for which they fought are long dead, too. The victories are now meaningless, and the defeats without pain. The cities that were taken and lost have crumbled into dust. Indeed, if we stop to think of it, almost all that remains of the Peloponnesian War is Thucydides’ account of it.
Yet that account is still important. For Thucydides’ story -we might as well use that word-has had an influence on the subsequent history of man. Leaders in later eras read Thucydides. When they found themselves in situations that even faintly approximated that of the tragically divided Greek city-states, they compared their own position to that of Athens or Sparta.
They used Thucydides as an excuse and a justification, and even as a pattern of conduct. The result was that by ever so little, perhaps, but perceptibly, the history of the world was changed by the view held of a small portion of it by Thucydides in the fifth century B.C. Thus we read Thucydides not because he described perfectly what happened before he wrote his book, but because he to a certain extent determined what happened after. And we read him, strange as this may seem, to know what is happening now.
“Poetry is more philosophical than history,” wrote Aristotle.
By this he meant that poetry is more general, more universal.
A good poem is true not only in its own time and place, but in all times and places. It has meaning and force for all men.
History is not quite so universal as that. It is tied to events in a way that poetry is not. But any good history is also universal.
Thucydides himself said that he was writing his history so that men of the future would not have to repeat the mistakes he had seen made and from which he had suffered personally and through the agony of his country. He described the kinds of human mistakes that would have meaning to men other than himself, to men other than Greeks. Yet some of the very same errors that the Athenians and the Spartans made 2,50 years ago, or at least very similar ones, are being made now, as they have been made over and over again since Thucydides’ time.
If your view of history is limited, if you go to it to discover only what really happened, you will not learn the main thing that Thucydides, or indeed any good historian, has to teach. If you read Thucydides well, you may even decide to give up trying to discover what really happened in the past.
History is the story of what led up to now. It is the present that interests us-that and the future. The future will be partly determined by the present. Thus, you can learn something about the future, too, from a historian, even from one who like Thucydides lived more than two thousand years ago.
Let us sum up these two suggestions for reading history.
The first is: if you can, read more than one history of an event or period that interests you. The second is : read a history not only to learn what really happened at a particular time and place in the past, but also to learn the way men act in all times and places, especially now.
Questions to Ask of a Historical Book Despite the fact that most histories are closer to fiction than to science, they can be read as expository works, and therefore they should be. Hence, we must ask the same questions of a historical book that we ask of any expository book.
Because of the special nature of history, we must ask those questions a little differently and must expect to receive slightly different kinds of answers.
As far as the first question is concerned, every history has a particular and limited subject. It is surprising, then, how often readers do not trouble to find out what this is. In particular, they do not always note carefully what limitations the author sets for himself. A history of the Civil War is not a history of the world in the nineteenth century. It probably will not be a history of the American West in the 1860’s. It could, though perhaps it should not, ignore the state of American education in that decade, or the movement of the American frontier, or the progress of American freedom. Hence, if we are to read a history well, it is necessary to know precisely what it is about and what it is not about. Certainly, if we are to criticize it, we must know the latter. An author cannot be blamed for not doing what he did not try to do.
With regard to the second question, the historian tells a story, and that story, of course, occurred in time. Its general outlines are thus determined, and we do not have to search for them. But there is more than one way to tell a story, and we must know how the historian has chosen to tell his. Does he divide his work into chapters that correspond to years or decades or generations? Or does he divide it according to other rubrics of his own choosing? Does he discuss, in one chapter, the economic history of his period, and cover its wars and religious movements and literary productions in others? Which of these is most important to him? If we discover that, if we can say which aspect of the story he is telling seems to him most fundamental, we can understand him better. We may not agree with his judgment about what is basic, but we can still learn from him.
Criticism of history takes two forms. We can judge-but only, as always, after we understand what is being said-that a historian’s work lacks verisimilitude. People just do not act that way, we may feel. Even if the historian documents his statements by giving us access to his sources, and even if to our knowledge they are relevant, we can still feel that he has misunderstood them, that he has judged them in the wrong way, perhaps through some deficiency in his grasp of human nature or human affairs. We tend to feel this, for example, about many older historians who do not include much discussion of economic matters in their work. People, we may be inclined to think now, act out of self-interest; too much nobility ascribed to the “hero” of a history may make us suspicious.
On the other hand, we may think, especially if we have some special knowledge of the subject, that the historian has misused his sources. We may be indignant to discover that he has not read a certain book that we have read. And he may be misinformed about the facts of the matter. In that case, he cannot have written a good history of it. We expect a historian to be informed.
The first criticism is, however, more important. A good historian must combine the talents of the storyteller and the scientist. He must know what is likely to have happened as well as what some witnesses or writers said actually did happen.
With regard to the last question, What of it?, it is possible that no kind of literature has a greater effect on the actions of men than history. Satires and pictures of philosophical utopias have little effect; we would all like the world to be better, but we are seldom inspired by the recommendations of authors who do no more than describe, often bitterly, the difference between the real and the ideal. History, which tells us of the actions of men of the past, often does lead us to make changes, to try to better our lot. In general, statesmen have been more learned in history than in other disciplines. History suggests the possible, for it describes things that have already been done. If they have been done, perhaps they can be done again -or perhaps they can be avoided.
The main answer to the question, What of it?, therefore, lies in the direction of practical, political action. For this reason it is of great importance that history be read well. Unfortunately, leaders have often acted with some knowledge of history but not enough. With the world as small and dangerous as it has become, it would be a good idea for all of us to start reading history better.
How to Read Biography and Autobiography A biography is a story about a real person. This mixed patrimony causes it to have a mixed character.
Some biographers would object to this description. But ordinarily, at least, a biography is a narrative account of the life, the history, of a man or woman or of a group of people; thus, a biography poses many of the same problems as a history. The reader must ask the same sort of questions-what is the author’s purpose? What are his criteria of truth?-as well, of course, as asking the questions we must ask of any book.
There are several kinds of biographies. The definitive biography is intended to be the final, exhaustive, scholarly work on the life of someone important enough to deserve a definitive biography. Definitive biographies cannot be written about living persons. They are seldom written until several non-definitive biographies have first appeared, all of them often somewhat inadequate. All sources are gone through, all letters read, and a great deal of contemporary history examined by the author. Since the ability to gather the materials is somewhat different from the talent for shaping them into a good book, definitive biographies are not always easy reading.
This is too bad. A scholarly book does not have to be dull. One of the greatest of all biographies is Boswell’s Life of Johnson, and it is continuously fascinating. It is certainly definitive (though other biographies of Dr. Johnson have since appeared), but it is also uniquely interesting.
A definitive biography is a slice of history-the history of a man and of his times, as seen through his eyes. It should be read as history. An authorized biography is not the same thing at all. Such works are usually commissioned by the heirs or friends of some important person, and they are carefully written so that the errors the person made and the triumphs he achieved are seen in the best light possible. They can sometimes be very good indeed, because the author has the advantage-not as a rule accorded to other writers-of being allowed access to all pertinent material by those who control it. But, of course, an authorized biography cannot be trusted in the same way that a definitive biography can be. Instead of reading it simply as history, the reader should understand that it may be biased-that this is the way the reader is expected to think of the book’s subject; this is the way his friends and associates want him to be known to the world.
The authorized biography is a kind of history, but it is history with a difference. We may be curious to know what interested persons want the public to know about someone’s private life, but we should not expect to know what the private life really was. The reading of an authorized biography will thus often tell us much about the time in which it was written, about its customs and manners, about those actions and attitudes that were acceptable-and, by implication and with a little extrapolation, about those that were not. But we should not hope to discover the real life of a human being any more than we would hope to know the real story of a war if we read the communiques of only one side. To get at the truth we must read all the communiques, ask people who were there, and use our own minds to make sense out of the muddle. A definitive biography has already done this work; in the case of an authorized biography (and most biographies of living persons are of this sort), there is still much to do.
There remain those biographies that are neither definitive nor authorized. Perhaps we may call them ordinary biographies. In such works, we expect the author to be accurate, to know his facts. We want above all to be given the feeling that we are viewing the life of a real person in another time and place. Human beings are curious, and especially curious about other human beings.
Such books, although not trustworthy in the way definitive biographies are, are often very good reading. The world would be the poorer without Izaak Walton’s Lives of his friends, the poets John Donne and George Herbert, for example (Walton is of course better known for his The Complete Angler) ; or John Tyndall’s account of his friend Michael Faraday in Faraday the Discoverer.
Some biographies are didactic. They have a moral purpose. Not many of this sort are written any more, but they used to be common. (They are still written for children, of course.) Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans is such a work. Plutarch told the stories of great men of the Greek and Roman past in order to help his contemporaries to be great also, and to help them avoid the errors into which the great so often fall-or so he felt. The Lives is a marvelous book; but, although many of the accounts are the only ones we have of their subjects, we do not read it so much for its biographical information as for its view of life in general. Its subjects are interesting people, good and bad, but never indifferent.
Plutarch realized this himself. His original intention in writing had been to instruct others, he said, but in the course of the work he discovered that more and more it was he himself who was deriving profit and stimulation from “lodging these men one after the other in his house.”
Incidentally, Plutarch’s is another historical work that has exercised a profound influence on subsequent history. For example, just as Plutarch shows Alexander the Great modeling his own life on that of Achilles (whose life he learned about from Homer), so many later conquerors have tried to model their lives on that of Plutarch’s Alexander.
Autobiographies present some different and interesting problems. First of all, it is questionable whether anyone has ever written a true autobiography. If it is difficult to know the life of anyone else, it is even more difficult to know one’s own.
And, of course, all autobiographies have to be written about lives that are not yet complete.
The temptation to tell either less or more than the truth (the latter may be more common) , when there is no one to contradict you, is almost irresistible. Everybody has some secrets he cannot bear to divulge; everybody also has some illusions about himself, which it is almost impossible for him to regard as illusions. However, although it is not possible to write a wholly true autobiography, neither is it possible to write one that contains no truth at all. Just as no man can be a perfect liar, so every autobiography tells us something about its author, if only that there are things that he wants to conceal.
It is customary to say that the Confessions of Rousseau, or some other book written about the same time (about the middle of the eighteenth century), is the first real autobiography. This is to overlook Augustine’s Confessions, for example, and Montaigne’ s Essays; but the error is more serious than that.
In fact, much of what anyone writes on any subject is autobiographical. There is a great deal of Plato in the Republic, of Milton in Paradise Lost, of Goethe in Faust-though we may not be able to put our finger on it exactly. If we are interested in humanity, we will tend, within reasonable limits, to read any book partly with an eye to discovering the character of its author.
This should never be the primary consideration, and it leads, when it is overdone, to the so-called pathetic fallacy.
But we should remember that words do not write themselves -the ones we read have been found and written down by a living man. Plato and Aristotle said some similar, and some dissimilar, things; but even if they had agreed completely, they could not have written the same books, for they were different men. We may even discover something of St. Thomas Aquinas in such an apparently unrevealing work as the Summa Theologica.
Thus it matters very little that formal autobiography is a relatively new literary genre. No one has ever been able to keep himself entirely out of his book. “I have no more made my book,” said Montaigne, “than my book has made me; a book co-substantial with its author, concerned with my own self, an integral part of my life.” And he added, “Everyone recognizes me in my book, and my book in me.” This is true, and not only of Montaigne. “This is no book,” says Whitman of his Leaves of Grass. “Who touches this touches a man.”
Are there any additional hints for reading biographies and autobiographies? Here is one that is important. Despite the fact that such books, and especially the autobiographies, reveal much about their authors, we should not spend so much time trying to discover a writer’s secrets that we do not find out what he says plainly. Apart from this, given the fact that such books are often more poetical than discursive or philosophical, and that they are special kinds of history, there is perhaps little more to add. You should remember, of course, that if you wish to know the truth about a person’s life, you should read as many biographies of him as you can find, including his own account of his life, if he wrote one. Read biography as history and as the cause of history; take all autobiographies with a grain of salt; and never forget that you must not argue with a book until you fully understand what it is saying. As to the question, What of it?, we would only say this : biography, like history, can be a cause of practical, moral action. A biography can be inspiring. It is the story of a life, usually a more or less successful one-and we too have lives to lead.
How to Read About Current Events We have said that our exposition of the art of analytical reading applies to everything you have to read, not just to books. Now we want to qualify that statement a little. Analytical reading is not always necessary. There are many things that we read that do not require the kind of effort and skill that is called for at this third level of reading ability. Nevertheless, although the rules of reading do not all always have to be applied, the four questions must always be asked of anything you read. That means, of course, that they must be asked when you are faced with the kind of things to which most of us devote much of our reading time: newspapers, magazines, books about current events, and the like.
After all, history did not stop a thousand years ago, or a hundred. The world goes on, and men and women continue to write about what is happening and how things are changing.
Perhaps no modern history is as great as Thucydides’ work; posterity will have to be the judge of that. But we do have an obligation, as human beings and as citizens, to try to understand the world around us.
The problem comes down to knowing what is actually happening now. We have chosen the word “actually” in the last sentence intentionally. The French word for newsreel is actualites; the whole concept of current events literature is somehow the same as that of the “news.” How do we get the news, and how do we know that what we get is true?
You can see at once that we are faced with the same problem that is posed by history itself. We cannot be sure that we are getting at the facts-we cannot be sure that we know what is happening now any more than we can be sure about what happened in the past. And yet we must try to know, so far as that is possible.
If we could be everywhere at once, overhear all conversations on earth, look into the heart of every living person, we might be able to make a stab at the truth of current events.
Being human and hence limited, we must fall back on the services of reporters. Reporters are persons who are supposed to know what is happening in a small area. They report it in newspaper stories, in magazines, or in books. What we can know depends on them.
Ideally, a reporter, of whatever kind, is a clear glass in which reality is reflected-or through which it shines. But the human mind is not a clear glass. It is not a good reflector, and when reality shines through it, the mind is not a very good filter. It separates out what it considers to be unreality, untruth. That is proper, of course; a reporter should not report what he thinks is false. But he may be mistaken.
Thus the most important thing to know, when reading any report of current happenings, is who is writing the report.
What is involved here is not so much an acquaintance with the reporter himself as with the kind of mind he has. The various sorts of filter-reporters fall into groups. To understand what kind of filter our reporter’s mind is, we must ask a series of questions about it. This amounts to asking a series of questions about any material dealing with current events. The questions are these:
What does the author want to prove?
Whom does he want to convince?
What special knowledge does he assume?
What special language does he use?
Does he really know what he is talking about?
For the most part it is safe to assume that all current events books want to prove something. Often it is easy enough to discover what this is. The blurb often states the main contention or thesis of such books. If it does not appear there, it may be stated by the author in a preface.
Having asked what the book is trying to prove, you should next ask whom the author is trying to convince. Is the book intended for those “in the know”-and are you in that category?
Is it for that small group of persons who can do something, and quickly, about the situation the author describes? Or is it for everyone? If you do not belong to the audience for which the book is intended, you may not want to read it.
You must next discover what special knowledge the author assumes that you have. The word ‘‘knowledge” is intended here to cover a lot of ground. “Opinion” or “prejudice”
might have been a better choice. Many authors write only for readers who agree with them. If you disagree sharply with a reporter’s assumptions, you may only be irritated if you try to read his book.
The assumptions that an author makes, and that he assumes you share, are sometimes very difficult to discover.
In The Seventeenth Century Background, Basil Willey has this to say:
”. . . it is almost insuperably difficult to become critically conscious of one’s own habitual assumptions; “doctrines felt as facts” can only be seen to be doctrines, and not facts, after great efforts of thought, and usually only with the aid of a first-rate metaphysician.”
He goes on to suggest that it is easier to discover the “doctrines felt as facts” of an age different from our own, and that is what he attempts to do in his book. In reading books about our own time, however, we do not have the advantage of distance. Thus we must try to see through the filter not only of the author-reporter’s mind, but also of our own.
Next, you must ask if there is a special language that the author uses. This is particularly important in reading magazines and newspapers, but it also applies to all books about current history. Certain words provoke special responses from us, responses that they might not provoke from other readers a century hence. An example of such a word is “Communism” or “Communist.” We should try to control these responses, or at least know when they occur.
Finally, you must consider the last of the five questions, which is probably the hardest to answer. Does the reporter whose work you are reading himself know the facts? Is he privy to the perhaps secret thoughts and decisions of the persons about whom he is writing? Does he know all that he should know in order to give a fair and balanced account of the situation?
What we are suggesting, in other words, is that the possible bias of the author-reporter is not the only thing that has to be considered. We have heard a good deal lately about the “management of the news”; it is important to realize that this applies not only to us, as members of the public, but also to reporters who are supposed to be “in the know.” They may not be. With the best good will in the world, with every intention of providing us with the truth of the matter, a reporter may still be “uninformed” with regard to secret actions, treaties, and so forth. He himself may be aware of this, or he may not.
In the latter case, of course, the situation is especially perilous for his reader.
You will note that these five questions are really only variations on the questions we have said you must ask of any expository book. Knowing an author’s special language, for example, is nothing more than coming to terms with him. But because current books and other material about the contemporary world pose special problems for us as readers, we have stated the questions in a different way.
Perhaps it is most useful to sum up the difference in a warning rather than a set of rules for reading books of this kind. The warning is this: Caveat lector -“Let the reader beware.” Readers do not have to be wary when reading Aristotle, or Dante, or Shakespeare. But the author of any contemporary book may have-though he does not necessarily have-an interest in your understanding it in a certain way. Or if he does not, the sources of his information may have such an interest.
You should know that interest, and take it into account in whatever you read.
A Note on Digests There is another consequence of our basic distinction-the distinction between reading for information and reading for understanding-that underlies everything we have said about reading. And this is that sometimes we have to read for information about understanding-to find out how others have interpreted the facts. Let us try to explain what this means.
For the most part, we read newspapers and magazines, and even advertising matter, for the information they contain.
The amount of such material is vast, so vast that no one today has time to read more than a small fraction of it. Necessity has been the mother of a number of good inventions in the field of such reading. The news magazines, for instance, such as Time and Newsweek, perform an invaluable function for most of us by reading the news and reducing it to its essential elements of information. The men who write these magazines are primarily readers. They have developed the art of reading for information to a point far beyond the average reader’s competence.
The same is true of a publication like Reader’s Digest, which professes to bring us in condensed form much that is worth our attention in current general magazines to the compact scope of a single, small volume. Of course, the very best articles, like the best books, cannot be condensed without loss.
If the essays of Montaigne, for example, were appearing in a current periodical, we would scarcely be satisfied to read a digest of them. A summary, in this case, would function well only if it impelled us to read the original. For the average article, however, a condensation is usually adequate, and often even better than the original, because the average article is mainly informational. The skill that produces Reader’s Digest and the scores of similar periodicals is, first of all, a skill in reading, and only then one of writing simply and clearly. It does for us what few of us have the technique-even if we had the time-to do for ourselves. It cuts the core of solid information out of pages and pages of less substantial stuff.
But, after all, we still have to read the periodicals that accomplish these digests of current news and information. If we wish to be informed, we cannot avoid the task of reading, no matter how good the digests are. And the task of reading them is, in the last analysis, the same task as that which is performed by the editors of these magazines on the original material that they make available in more compact form. They have saved us labor, so far as the extent of our reading is concerned, but they have not saved us and cannot entirely save us the trouble of reading. In a sense, the function they perform profits us only if we can read their digests of information as well as they have done the prior reading in order to give us the digests.
And that involves reading for understanding as well as information. Obviously, the more condensed a digest is, the more selection has occurred. We may not have to worry about this very much if 1,00 pages are cut down to 90, say; but if 1,00 pages are cut to ten, or even one, then the question of what has been left out becomes critical. Hence the greater the condensation, the more important it is that we know something of the character of the condensor; the same caveat we mentioned before applies here with even greater force. Ultimately, perhaps, this comes down to reading between the lines of an expert condensation. You cannot refer to the original to find out what was left out; you must somehow infer this from the condensation itself. Reading digests, therefore, is sometimes the most demanding and difficult reading that you can do.
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