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Read Both Sides

October 12, 2001

A friend once told me, and I paraphrase, “I almost don’t want to read at all, because once I start, and read one side of things, I feel compelled to read the other.”

My friend’s real problem was not in reading both sides but in deciding. He felt he had to come to a decision about the matter before moving on.

I say, read both sides, but let it go if it doesn’t move you. I’m not saying to forget; you can still learn. But you don’t have to invest much emotion in the matter unless it moves you.

It seems simple, but it’s not. It’s hard to ignore something that you take seriously. There is an emotional content to much of our knowledge, but I’ll spare you my theory about that.

As for accommodating both sides of a matter, I’ll quote one of my favorite definitions of intelligence: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

I’ve always liked this statement, because it seems to enscapsulate the human condition so well. We are forever holding up mutually exclusive ideas and propositions, scratching our chins in a primatial pose of contemplation, and wondering.

I strayed into this meditation while thinking about all the reading that will be going on about Islam and the Arab world and the politics of terrorism.

Anything the library currently has is checked out, but we’ve ordered more. On their way are the 4-volume Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, several books about the Taliban, and other titles such as “Makers of Contemporary Islam” and “Islamic Leviathan” and “Understanding Islam.”

These books will offer a variety of viewpoints. “Dollars for Terror” is a catchy title, but like most of the books, it is backordered. If I’d been savvier, I would have placed an order by September 12.

I thought of the different points of view that will be brought to these books by their readers. Some readers will want to learn, some will want confirmation of what they believe they already know, some will want to feel better, some to be horrified.

I was reminded of two books that sit side by side on our shelves. One is “How to read a book” by Mortimer Adler, and the other is “How to read and why” by Harold Bloom.

Adler’s deals mostly with expository writing, although he does touch a little on novels, poetry, etc. Bloom’s is all about fiction, poetry, and plays, but I mention it because I was thrilled to find a short chapter about one of my favorite short novels, “The crying of Lot 49,” by Thomas Pynchon.

Adler goes into great depth about analytical reading and various approaches a reader can take to books of all types. A quick look at the Table of Contents reveals such chapters as “How to be a demanding reader,” and “Coming to terms with an author,” and “Determining an author’s message,” and so on.

Adler offers much good advice, with many solid examples, and his book strikes me as the perfect kind of guidance for the new age of polemic that is certainly upon us.

Oh, and the next line in Fitzgerald’s quote is: “One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

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