Reading And Study

READING can be made into an opportunity for the development of mental power. Its effect is very often quite the reverse, for there is scarcely anything more destructive of mind organization and the power of thought than the habit of promiscuous reading without purpose and without afterthought or forethought.

If you know any people who cannot read or seldom read, you may have observed that the condition at their minds is often superior to that of reading people. What they know they know well; their ideas are vivid, and available when they want them—but we must offset against this advantage a great lack of mental content.

There is no reason, however, why we should not have perfect clearness and vigour of mind along with ample knowledge ; and indeed this can be brought about by reading in the right manner. We shall perhaps read a little less than we did before, but we shall read well.

For this purpose I recommend the advice of Emerson: " Read for correction, not for information." In other words, think first and read afterwards. Some few people read first and think afterwards, which is a good thing, though not the best; but I am afraid that most people just read and do not think at all.

The rare people who are really going to profit by their reading are those who think first and read afterwards.

If you have half an hour for reading, spend ten minutes in reviewing your own knowledge and thought on the subject —even if you think you have none, you may engage in wondering about it—and then read for twenty minutes. Or, if you have only a quarter of an hour to spare, think for five minutes and read for ten.

This means that when you pick up your book to read, let us say, a chapter on the habits of elephants, you will not immediately open the book and plunge into the subject. You will first sit with the book unopened on your knee or on the table, and say to yourself: "Now, just what do I know about the habits of elephants ?" It may be much, or little, or next to nothing, that you know, but whatever it is you must make yourself review your own knowledge before you start to add to it. Then you may open your book and begin to read, and the result will be that you will understand more than usual; and you will remember more than usual, indeed, nearly all, of what you read.

Your mind has been awakened to the subject; its own knowledge has been rearranged in an orderly form, and many questions, definite and indefinite, have come into view. The expectancy engendered by thinking before reading provides the mind with hooks to take up many points which otherwise would scarcely be noticed, and the arrangement of your old knowledge offers a place into which each piece of new knowledge will fit.

This practice puts the mental house in order, opens up and tidies the most unused drawers and boxes, and prepares the mind for light, as no other kind of reading can. First of all you have ideas of your own—then you correct, enlarge and increase them by reading. You gain not only knowledge and a well-ordered mind, but also exercise that results in power of mind and will.

Even if you are merely reading a story or a novel, why not sit for a while musing on the situation that has arisen ? What would you do if you were in the position indicated, what would you make the characters do if you were the author ?

This mode of reading has also another great merit; it prepares one for a fruitful old age. Everyone who wants to keep his mental powers unimpaired after the decline of the physical senses should have a mental hobby, and give a little time to it from three to five days each week—not every day, for that tends to fatigue.

It is best always to have on hand a good book, on philosophy, or history, or travel, or science or any other subject, to which one can turn several times a week for mental recreation. There should be no thought of reaching the end of the book; it is to be lived with, and the method of reading it should be that in which one thinks first and reads afterwards.

I recommend every young man or woman when leaving college or high school to keep up one of his subjects of study as a mental hobby, or to take up some other subject in which he is interested. It does not matter what the subject is—a branch of mathematics, history, biology, geology, psychology, moral philosophy, economics, political science, astronomy, chemistry, religion, art; any one of these, or any branch of one of them.

The most important fact in connexion with this study is that the student will be using his mind under the control of the will, that is to say, by determination from within, not merely in response to the stimulus of everyday events and needs, as is the case when we think about most of the affairs of life.

If a man has been thinking only in response to external stimuli, it is almost certain that when the physical powers of hearing, sight, etc., begin to decline and external things do not make as strong claims on attention as they did before, and curiosity begins to disappear, mental activity will also diminish.

But when a man has used his mind from within, has accustomed it to work under the impulse of his own will, there is no reason why his mental powers should not continue to improve even into advanced old age of the body.

There are still other benefits resulting from the possession of a mental hobby. You have sooner or later the satisfaction of feeling that you are the master of some line of thought or subject of human knowledge. You know as much as almost anyone does about it. This gives you confidence, and you feel also the strength and the indescribable happiness of the inner sense of will.

For the purpose of these considerations I may divide books and articles into three classes: (1) novels and stories, intended for relaxation and for imaginative enjoyment, (2) books of travel, biography, history, literature, politics, and human subjects generally, intended to instruct or elevate, and (3) textbooks and technical works, intended to give full and exact information in the minimum of words on the subjects treated in them.

The last class of books are not for reading, but for study. In this case there seems to be a difference of opinion: should they be read quickly, or slowly with meticulous attention to detail ? My answer to this problem is: both. First read your current chapter quickly to get the high lights, the main tendencies, the chief headings or topics. Then go over the heading or topic again with close attention to the detail.

In our study of any complex subject, we have to deal with such a vast mass of ideas that it is not practical to learn them seriatim. The student who tries to give equal attention to each point as it comes up will soon become a very dull student indeed. He will resemble a person who in real life meeting with, let us say, a dog, will first look at its nose, then eyes, ears, neck, shoulders, back, rump, and tail, and at last will declare to himself with an imbecile kind of sagacity, "Ah, that is a dog." An intelligent person will first see that it is a dog, and then study it in detail if he wants to do so.

So our student should understand the subject and nature of the chapter or topic he is studying, before studying it closely. His study will then fall into groups, under definite headings.

When the main topics are clear let the student turn to detail. Then very soon the apparent multiplicity of detail will disappear, as the ideas connected with a main topic become consolidated in the mind. To a chemist, for example, the properties and reactions of, let us say, sodium, become one unit, just as we think of a book as a unit idea, not of the paper, ink, cover, binding, etc., as a number of things to be individually remembered.

At this stage the subject will seem easy; all is simple to one who knows. I have seen students looking aghast at examination papers such as they will have to meet in perhaps a year. With white face the student mutters, "I shall never be able to answer." A year later, the same student looks at the paper, and remarks loftily: "Very simple; nothing in it," and when he becomes a teacher later on, he says: " I do not know what examination papers are coming 1o in these days; in my time they used to set stingers, but now it is all kindergarten stuff."

In practice, then, when you have sorted out your groups or headings, or such of them as you immediately need, pick out the principal fact in a group and make a thorough study of that, committing it to memory.

Incidentally, it would be well to review it in memory every day for a week, for new knowledge is like young plants— they must be watered regularly while young, until they are strong enough to stand the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune without outside help.

As to the subsidiary facts in each block—a mere careful reading of them with reference to the main fact will be sufficient to impress them strongly on the mind, and if at any time you are called upon for an account of these minor things, you will be able to recall all about them by thinking first of the main fact which you thoroughly know, and mentally inquiring their relation to it.

For example, in history, one would study thoroughly the most prominent monarch in each dynasty and the principal fact, event or personage in each reign, and then link the reigns together in a series or plant them in order in a "house"; or in chemistry one would study thoroughly chlorine as one of the halogens, and sodium and calcium, and such typical elements, thoroughly, and associate other members of their series with them by an after-reading of a far less searching kind.

The secret of success in the study of complex subjects is to take one thing at a time, get hold of it firmly, stow it away out of sight, and pass on to the next. When the second idea is quite clear, bring the first out again and add the two together. Never try to put more than two together at one time, and never hurry.

Many a student fails because he will not take one thing at a time and form a clear idea of that before passing on to the next. I have known students to grab feverishly at a number of ideas at once, and fail to grasp any of them clearly. Not feeling sure of one fact which they are supposed to have learned, they try to keep an eye upon it, so to speak, lest it should slip away while they are learning the next; and the result is that the new idea is not properly understood or learned.

There is a little story of an Irish farm labourer who was once sent by his master to count the pigs in the yard. After a time, he came back scratching his head and looking sorely puzzled: "I counted ten of them," he explained, "but there was one little fellow who ran about so fast that I could not count him at all, at all."

It is a fact that unless we make our ideas stand quietly, and look ever them singly, they run about so much that we cannot grasp them clearly. It is necessary to get each new idea into a corner, from which he cannot escape, and then examine him and watch him very carefully indeed.

If the student will not do this, he is like a person trying to run with a big armful of oranges; one falls over; he makes a desperate clutch at it; another goes over on the other side; and soon all the oranges are rolling on the ground.

It is best to make the new idea as simple as you can at first, so that it may easily add itself to knowledge already existing in your mind. In every case in which you are learning from a book it is a good plan to simplify the sentence you are studying by taking away all the qualifying words, making a mental picture of the essential idea, and then adding to this image one by one all the various qualifying attributes. For example, you read of the discovery of Lithium—

"In 1817, Arfvedson, working in Berzelius's laboratory upon a petalite from Uto, Sweden, discovered an alkali which he found to differ from those already known in the following particulars: (1) in the low fusing points of the chloride and sulphate; (2) in the hygroscopic character of the chloride, and (3) in the insolubility of the carbonate."

Simplify the idea: Arfvedson discovered an alkali. Make a clear mental picture (not in words) of Arfvedson in the act of discovering an alkali. Repeat the idea several times until it becomes familiar. Then add to it the idea that the discovery took place in a laboratory. Picture the discovery in the laboratory; add the idea that it was Berzelius's laboratory; next give the whole idea the aspect of 1817; the date may easily be remembered by noting that 18 is followed by 17, which is one less. Get the whole idea clear that, in 1817, Arfvedson discovered an alkali in Berzelius's laboratory.

How did he make the discovery, and what exactly did he discover ? He was working in Berzelius's laboratory in 1817 upon a mineral silicate named petalite from Uto, Sweden, when he discovered the alkali. Be sure that your idea of an alkali is clear, and recall to mind familiar examples of alkaline properties, such as those associated with sodium and potassium. He found that it differed from the known alkalis — study them together; compare them carefully, noting the resemblances and differences. Finally repeat the whole idea from memory, and thus slowly work through the textbook.

I have tried to show how each sentence must be worked upon with thought, not simply read and repeated as a whole; how the qualifying words, phrases, and sentences must first be removed and then added again bit by bit. The aim is to transfer the form of words from the printed page, not into a form of words in the mind, but into a living mental image which its owner can express in any words or from any point of view he may choose.

The image may be an inner visualization, audition, or other sense imagination of the object, or a simplified or symbolic picture. Most students of history, I feel sure, will find it more difficult to remember: " The period of Charles I was one of continual parliamentary, religious and martial strife," than to make and keep a small mental picture of the handsome king, with an excited parliamentary group on one hand and a body of Bible-carrying Roundheads on the other.

When such picture-ideas have been made they should be compared with each other, two at a time, in accordance with the four Roads of Thought. Suppose, for example, that in English history we have studied the reign of Charles I, and are familiar with it, and we now wish to study that of James I. We may make another little picture of that authoritative monarch sitting upon his throne surrounded by his favourites in succession, and then go on adding details to each picture, inquiring in what respect, with reference to the whole and to each detail, they resemble and differ from each other.

Let us take a simpler instance from elementary geography. Suppose you are about to study the geography of India and you already know quite well that of England. As you come to each point that is new to you, compare it with a similar point in the geography of the country that you know well. For example, the lower part of India is a triangle with the point to the south; England is also roughly a triangle, but with the point to the north. India is bounded on the north by a long range of mighty mountains, whereas England is bounded on the north by a very short range of small mountains. The large rivers of both countries flow into seas on the east and the west, but in England the rivers, like all the other natural features, are comparatively small. On the west of India we have a projecting nose (Kathiawar), just as Wales sticks out on the west of England.

In this manner you may proceed to compare the numbers, sizes, shapes and positions of rivers and mountains with those you already know; and go on to compare the political divisions of the countries, the natural products, the general and local governments, etc., with those that are familiar to you.

In all cases it is better not to try to compare two unfamiliar things, but to compare the new unfamiliar fact with an old familiar one. As I have before remarked, all learning consists in adding something that you did not know to something that you do; nothing can suddenly heave into your mind a new piece of knowledge which has no relation to anything that you already know.

Merely as an exercise, one might compare a number of large complexes in pairs, such as a forest and a park; a park and a mountain range; mountains and the sea; the sea and the sky; a house and a factory; an elephant and a whale; a law book and a textbook of science; a poem by Tennyson and one by Wordsworth.

No doubt it will seem easier and quicker to many students merely to read over and over again the portions of their textbooks that they require, in the hope that some of the ideas they thus gain will stick in the mind. There is some excuse for the student, who in these days is terribly harried by a vast and varied host of teachers—each with his own coagulation of indigestible mental bread—if he finds himself too tired to think. Yet the fact remains that the only knowledge that is really retained for long is that which has been acquired with some effort—a sudden and incisive effort of perception, or a long, slow and deliberate pondering of the facts or ideas.

Before closing these hints on study, I must impress again upon the student the great importance of concentration, especially in preparing for examinations, for just as an artist surrounds his picture with a frame or stands his statue on a pedestal so that its beauty may be isolated and thus more perfectly seen, so must the thinker concentrate upon his idea to see it clearly. As that idea is a mental thing it cannot be surrounded by a frame. There is this distinction between outside objects and things of the mind, that the former are defined by their boundaries or outlines and the latter by their centres. Let the student stick to his centres.

Let us suppose that a student is going to read several pages of a textbook by himself. There are perhaps five ideas which he must understand and make perfectly clear to himself. He begins on the first page with idea number 1, gives to it the full power of his attention, and obtains a clear impression of it. Then he goes on to the next page, to study his second idea. But he is a little anxious about idea number 1. He feels that he must keep half an eye upon it lest it escape from his mind and be lost. He is not quite sure that he possesses that idea unless he can see it or feel it. The consequence is that he cannot give full attention to idea number 2. Therefore he does not grasp it as well as he did the first idea. It is less definite to him, and his anxiety is therefore greater than before when he has to turn to idea number 3. Still less power of attention can he give to idea number 4, since he is anxious about number 1, very anxious about number 2, and very, very anxious about number 3. His knowledge of idea number 5 is likely to be vague in the extreme.

When he has finished his whole course of study his Knowledge of the entire subject will prove to be very unequal and mottled. Some few things are clear to him, others are hazy, others are invisible, and his success in the examination depends upon his luck with the questions. Further, his knowledge is not going to be of great use to him for deeper or more advanced studies, when in its elementary parts it is so unequal.

This unfortunate student reminds me of another story of an Irishman who was working on a farm, and (like him whom I have already mentioned) was one day sent out into a yard— to catch some little pigs. He ran after them and caught one by the tail. Holding on to that with his left hand, he ran after another and caught it. Now holding on to two of them, he ran after a third. It is not recorded how he finished the task. He ought, of course, to have caught one and locked it up, then another, and so on.

That is what the student ought to do with his ideas. Let him fully understand idea number 1, and then lock it up by an act of concentration. When he has made the idea clear to himself, let him lean back and look at it calmly and steadily for a quarter of a minute. He can now drop the subject while he turns to idea number 2, confident that number 1 will come up in his mind when he wants it. Thus he will be able to give the same full attention to number 2 that he first gave to number 1, and so on to number 5.

Using this method of concentration, his knowledge will be equal, and he will not forget. There is nothing like anxiety to produce both forgetfulness and feeble-mindedness; but the experience of the value of concentration in study soon produces confidence in its power, and grants a new lease of life to the fatigued and worried student.

It is also a great merit of concentration that it enables a student not only to take up and retain a new idea, but also to drop one thing and turn to another. This ability to forget, to leave things alone mentally when it is not the proper time to think about them, is of great value.

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