Books have always been treasures to thinkers, but given today’s politically correct public educational system from kindergarten through high school and (with few exceptions) indoctrinating factories called universities, they are even more important for anyone desiring to achieve independent and critical thinking. Teachers on every level often have agendas having nothing to do with the subject supposedly being taught, and many college courses — like women’s or gender "studies" — are nothing but group identity labs.
Every subject under the sun, however, waits between the covers of print books or in digital form, and a plethora of works on the same subject usually exists; thus, readers can compare the facts and views of many different authors.
We can thank Johannes Gutenberg for inventing the printing press in Germany around 1450, which enabled the mass printing of books and allowed the rapid dissemination of knowledge to previously illiterate individuals. This changed the world. In Germany and the rest of Medieval Europe prior to this 15th century technology, the general populace had no access to education except via oral communications, the visual arts (both from prehistoric times on), and the powerful Catholic Church, which in many cases had political as well as religious power to control knowledge. Royalty and the wealthy could hire tutors for youngsters and send their older children to the few early universities. Notaries who were erudite and could write very well were in great demand to execute legal documents and the like, but without formal education the average person was taught little beyond trade learning, and that was oral and/or diagram driven.
Before the printing press, most books were for historic chronicling or literature in one form or another. They were written painstakingly by hand (usually on parchment — treated animal skins — rather than paper) and manuscripts were the result; the parchment pages were folded, bound together, and sewn into the format of a book. These were often aesthetically beautiful, featuring colored inks, intricately etched drawings, and, sometimes, important sections even gilded with gold leaf. Then, if desired, the originals were copied (by hand again), but if the scribe was lazy or lacking in skill, the text might become altered. If translations into another language were rendered, the translations might be faulty, so the whole business was a fragile one. In addition, books were scarce because of their production limitations.
With mass produced books, ideas were finally available to anyone who could learn to read. In today’s modern world virtually everyone in developed or semi-developed countries can read. But what and how is the burning question. Add to the earlier mentioned political correctness saturating educational institutions plus the demonstrable fact that most young people are tied to TV, computers, and mobile phones for information and communication, and we begin to appreciate why books loom more important than ever before.
Books are teaming with ideas and information — Ideas and information from which anyone with an inquiring mind can learn new things. Plus, new, varying and competing ideas foster thinking. And thinking forces the use and practice of reasoning. And since reason is the primary function for human survival, it behooves any person who loves life to utilize it. How do books help us excel at reasoning? We can read the ideas in a book critically and hone our ability to reason. But to do this we must not view books as sacred as so many are wont to do, keeping them neat and tidy and shiny. Books are tools to expand and exercise the mind. As an author myself with books to be analyzed for veracity and value, I encourage readers not to revere my works or the work of any other author but to use them. Authors may be admired — and good ones ought to be — but it is the content of their books that matters.
If you’re not a regular reader, make a list of subjects that interest you and put them in order of import. Next go to a bookstore or a library or check online and examine books that address your subject of the moment. Get the one you find most fascinating and read it.
Here’s one way to "read" a book and ensure you are fully engaged with the material: underline important words or passages, draw vertical lines along a margin to mark off paragraphs or important thought-sentences, bracket sections that warrant special attention, turn down the corners of significant pages and note on the turned down triangle the subject dealt with on that page, argue with the author or amplify thoughts or write your own new thoughts in the margins, use question marks, explanation marks, or any other kind of mark to record emotional reactions, use capital letters for especially important notations, draw arrows at the bottom of a page to indicate that the page’s content continues on. . . In short mark the book up with your thoughts. In order to do this you must use judgment, and to make judgments you must use reason. That process keeps you sharp.
There is also a bonus in reading this way. If you want to re-read a book (which is a good idea to refresh memory), skim through and re-read only the parts you have marked up. Re-read your own reactions as well. A mind that is active — learning, absorbing, rejecting--keeps an individual young in spirit. Certain books become our friends for life. Through reading we can become friends with otherwise unknown individuals as well: authors. Read books for the sake of your soul.
As comestibles nourish our bodies, ideas nourish our minds, and the combination makes us spiritually whole.
Alexandra York is an author and founding president of the American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century (ART) a New-York-City-based nonprofit educational arts and culture foundation (www.art-21.org). She has written for many publications, including "Reader’s Digest" and The New York Times. Her latest book is "Soul Celebrations and Spiritual Snacks." Read Alexandra York's Reports — More Here.
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