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The Blog Begins... and Don't Be an Intellectual Toolshed

I've decided to add a blog to my website. There are several reasons why: (1) I am writing more content than I can find a home for; (2) I'd like more freedom with what I write; and (3) I'd like to find a way to monetize my writing apart from the places where I am frequently published, and testing the waters with a blog seems a good a way as any to consider the feasibility of this.

I'll promise readers (and, I hope, eventually, financial supporters) of my blog several things:

(1) Brevity: I'll do my best to keep it short. I'm not sure about you, but I hate reading long essays on the computer. It hurts my eyes, I'm more easily distracted, and, when the content is more intellectually rigorous, I often don't feel like I've understood it as well.

(2) Intellectual Engagement: I've got no interest in telling you everything about my day, my life, or my family. The goal is to communicate truth and ideas that will interest, provoke, inspire, and, God willing, help you.

(3) Faithfulness: I can promise no conservative, biblical, or magisterial imprimatur or nihil obstat, but my goal is to write from a perspective that is faithful to the conservative tradition, biblical truth, and the teachings of the Catholic Church.

So, with that said, on to the first topic: books for 2021. A regular reader of mine (I am shocked such people exist) recently asked me for book recommendations. This gentleman (who, I should add, I presume to be a man of great integrity and intellectual acumen), wrote the following: "I am interested in creating a book list for myself of the foundational texts of traditional conservatism and classical liberalism. Also, I would like to know what texts have had the most profound impact on you and your life."

Well, that would be a long list, so I think I'll break it up into a few separate blog posts (brevity!). Here I'll just mention one book that if you have not read, you should tackle in 2021. It is How to Read a Book, by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren (yes, the same Charles Van Doren involved in the notorious quiz show scandal in the 1950s). I know, not as exactly the most thrilling or exciting title to captivate you in the new year. Yet I recommend this text to everyone, and here's why.

“We read to know we're not alone," says a character in the play Shadowlands. I think that's true, especially if you're reading fiction. But if you're reading for the purpose of acquiring knowledge, or evaluating the cogency of an argument, the goal isn't typically to savor every word and page like you would a glass of good Kentucky bourbon. This is where Adler and Van Doren's book becomes invaluably helpful.

The authors note that some non-fiction books are worth reading in their entirety (Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America is a good example). Many are not. Sometimes it's simply because the book is not very good. Other times it's because some parts of the books are good, other parts less so. And some times parts of the book are things you already know.

There is no point in wasting the precious hours God gave us reading stuff we don't need to (except this blog, of course; definitely read this blog). And yet non-fiction, whether it's subject matter is history, politics, science, or anything else, contains much valuable information. So we need strategies to extract what we want to know, while avoiding what we don't, in such a way that maximize retention.

Adler and Van Doren offer many insights, but I'll share just two. First, when you sit down to read the book, pay close attention to the table of contents and the introduction. A good ToC and introduction will tell you what the author plans to accomplish and summarize the main themes and arguments of the book. In some cases, especially if your goal is not to actually evaluate the arguments, but just to be aware of them, reading that much of the book might be enough. If the book is well-organized, you could actually read the intro, the first few and last few paragraphs of each chapter, and the conclusion, and know practically all the major ideas in the book. The rest of the book (again, if it's well-organized), is largely the data supporting the argument. (If an author leaves some important idea buried in the middle of a chapter, he's not a good writer.)

Second, read with a pencil in hand. Mark that baby up. Adler and Van Doren advise writing in the first few blank pages any questions you hope the book will answer. They also suggest using those blank pages as a place to write your own outline of the book as you read -- this way, when you return to the book later, you can just read your notes, rather than going through it all over again. I confess I don't typically do that last step any more -- but I do liberally underline, write comments or questions in the margins, and put an asterisk at the tops of pages I think are especially important. The fundamental point is that writing in the book means you're actually in dialogue with it, rather than being a purely passive consumer (and thus more likely to forget what you've read).

Several years ago, one of my friends visibly shuddered at the thought of marking up his books, some of which he bought as collectors items to showcase like a piece of art. I suppose a well-written book can be a piece of art. But books are also tools. They are meant to be used, broken in, and applied in some way, even if it's simply increasing our knowledge and appreciation of the world or the divine. Think about how silly it would be to place your cordless drill on a shelf, not to use, but to periodically admire.

The photo above is my library in our townhouse in Virginia. It is, admittedly, a big mess. But there's a reason why -- I am constantly pulling books down off the shelves, looking for information, and putting that information into articles (and book manuscripts) that I write, It is, you might say, my intellectual tool shed (that phrase sounds like a kind of insult). Adler and Van Doren's book, which I read in my early 30's, a decade after I finished my first masters degree, revolutionized the way I consume non-fiction. I wish I had read it my first year of college. So don't be an intellectual tool shed. Read How to Read a Book.... or at least the first part of it -- that may be all you need!

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