The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had (2016)


Chapter 2. Wrestling with Books: The Act of Reading

And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.

—GENESIS 32:24

THE FUTURISTS HAVE long been declaring it: We are a postliterate culture. Books are outdated forms of communication. Soon the flood of information that is now contained in print will all be presented in multimedia formats.

This prediction is only tangentially related to serious reading. Gathering data, which is what you do when you skim news headlines, read People at the doctor’s office, or use a book on plumbing techniques to fix your sink, has already shifted away from print, toward other media. But gathering data and reading—understanding ideas and how people act when they try to live by those ideas—are not the same.

When you gather data from a website or book, you use the same mechanical skill as when you engage in serious reading. Your eyes move; the words convey meaning to your mind. Yet your mind itself functions in a different way. When you gather data, you become informed. When you read, you develop wisdom—or, in Mortimer Adler’s words, “become enlightened.” “To be informed,” Adler writes in How to Read a Book, “is to know simply that something is the case. To be enlightened is to know, in addition, what it is all about.” To be informed is to collect facts; to be enlightened is to understand an idea (justice, or charity, or human freedom) and use it to make sense of the facts you’ve gathered.

When you read the morning news, you may find out that a suicide bomber has just devastated a Gaza marketplace. This is information—a collection of facts. Whether you gather those facts from an online news site, a print source, or CNN’s Headline News morning show does not significantly change the information, although the medium may slightly alter your experience of it; a skillful montage of bloody survivors, or a website with links to earlier news reports, may arouse your emotions, or associate this particular bombing with others that have happened recently.

But in order to be enlightened about the bombing, you must read seriously: history, theology, politics, propaganda, editorials. The ideas that impel suicide bombers cannot be gleaned from brief news reports or interactive media. The causes of such desperate actions cannot be made clear to you through a picture and a moving headline while you eat your toast. These things must be expressed with precise and evocative words, assembled into complex, difficult sentences. To be enlightened—to be wise—you must wrestle with these sentences. Technology can do a great deal to make information gathering easier, but it can do little to simplify the gathering of wisdom. Information washes over us like a sea, and recedes without leaving its traces behind. Wrestling with truth, as the story of Jacob warns us, is a time-consuming process that marks us forever.1

But I read so slowly; it will take me forever to get through those lists of Great Books! Reading is a lifelong process. There’s no hurry, no semester schedule, no end-of-term panic, no final exam. The idea that fast reading is good reading is a twentieth-century weed, springing out of the stony farmland cultivated by the computer manufacturers. As Kirkpatrick Sale has eloquently pointed out, every technology has its own internal ethical system. Steam technology made size a virtue. In the computerized world, faster is better, and speed is the highest virtue of all.2 When there is a flood of knowledge to be assimilated, the conduits had better flow fast.

But the pursuit of knowledge is centered around a different ethic. The serious reader is not attempting to assimilate a huge quantity of information as quickly as possible, but to understand a few many-sided and elusive ideas. The speed ethic shouldn’t be transplanted into an endeavor that is governed by very different ideals.

Speed-reading techniques are not likely to be of enormous help to you in any case. They center around two primary skills: proper eye movement (keep your eyes moving forward, and learn how to sweep them across the page diagonally rather than reading each line individually) and recognition of important words (look for concrete nouns and verbs, and allow your eye to move more quickly over “filler” words in a sentence). Peter Kump, the one-time director of education for the grandmama of all speed-reading courses, Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics, offers would-be speed-readers the following principles:

Rule One: The more abstract words a passage contains, the harder it is to read quickly.

Rule Two: The fewer ideas a passage contains, the easier it is to read fast.

Rule Three: The more prior knowledge of the subject of a written passage the reader has, the easier it is to read fast.3

How does Aristotle (here, in the Nicomachean Ethics, grading the severity of human misconduct) do on this scale?

[T]here are three kinds of injury. Those that are done in ignorance are Mistakes—when the patient or the act or the instrument or the effect was different from what the agent supposed, because he either did not mean to hit anyone, or not with that missile, or not that person, or not with that effect; but the result was different from what he expected (e.g. he only meant to give the other a prick, not a wound), or the person or the missile was different. When the injury occurs contrary to reasonable expectation it is a Misadventure; but when it occurs not contrary to reasonable expectation but without malicious intent it is a mistake (for the agent makes a mistake when the origin of the responsibility lies in himself; when it lies outside him his act is a misadventure). When the agent acts knowingly but without premeditation it is an Injury; such are all acts due to temper or any other of the unavoidable and natural feelings to which human beings are liable. For those who commit these injuries and mistakes are doing wrong, and their acts are injuries; but this does not of itself make them unjust or wicked men, because the harm that they did was not due to malice; it is when a man does a wrong on purpose that he is unjust and wicked.4

This is not a difficult passage to understand (although, granted, it lacks a certain snappy appeal; this particular classic is not on your reading list). Aristotle is defining the limits of what we might today call “misdemeanors” or “minor crimes” (he cautions the reader that he is not here discussing deliberate evil or purposeful wrongdoing). Perhaps you’ve broken your neighbor’s nose. Assuming you didn’t carefully plan the breaking and lie in wait for him, there are three possibilities. You made a Mistake: You took a light swing at your neighbor, just to scare him, but misjudged your own strength and hit him harder than intended (this is a Mistake because the problem lay inside you, in your poor understanding of your own strength). Or perhaps the nose got broken through Misadventure: You intended to hit your neighbor lightly, but he unfortunately tripped just as you were swinging and fell into your fist. (Alas.) Now the real cause of the broken nose is something outside you (the neighbor’s stumble). Or you might have committed an Injury: Your neighbor infuriated you, you hauled off and broke his nose in a fit of temper, but once you cooled down you were heartily ashamed of yourself, made amends, and swore never to do such a thing again.

This is an interesting sort of puzzle: If we take it out of the testosterone-charged nose-punching realm and apply it to something academic, like plagiarism, how do we evaluate the student who copies deliberately? unintentionally? out of desperation? On the weightier side: It is also the foundation of much Western law governing the severity of various offenses. Our distinction between murder and manslaughter hinges on whether the death can be classified as Mistake, Misadventure, or Injury (in which case it may be manslaughter), or whether it lies in the realm of deliberate, purposeful wrongdoing.

Could you speed-read this passage?

No; Peter Kump’s principles will be of no help to you. The passage has at least four separate ideas in it, not to mention a whole slew of abstract words (reasonable expectation, malicious intent, premeditation, unavoidable and natural feelings, wicked, wrong). And unless you’re a lawyer, you probably have no prior familiarity with the classification of injuries.

Generally, fiction is easier to read quickly than nonfiction. Even so, speed-reading fiction works just fine when the plot is the thing (James Patterson, say, or Janet Evanovich) but can cheat you out of understanding character-based fiction. In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen introduces two of her male romantic leads like this:

Mr Bingley was good looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners. His sisters were fine women, with an air of decided fashion. His brother-in-law, Mr Hurst, merely looked the gentleman; but his friend Mr Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien; and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year. The gentlemen pronounced him to be a fine figure of a man, the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr Bingley, and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud, to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend.5

Austen’s prose isn’t as loaded with abstractions as Aristotle’s, but nevertheless Austen introduces two quite separate ideas in this single paragraph: that a man’s fortune makes him handsomer to the onlooker, and that manners (themselves a separate idea, defined elsewhere) are even more important than money.

Speed-reading techniques are most useful when pure information is offered, as in (for example) an article from a 2001 People magazine, marveling over the actress Jenna Elfman’s deceptive youthfulness at the advanced age of twenty-nine:

As she approaches 30, Elfman has found her comfort zone. Her show Dharma & Greg is a hit. She and husband Bodhi, 32, have been happily married for six years. And the 5'10" Elfman likes what she sees when she looks in the mirror. “If you’re feeling good about your marriage and career, you’re going to look okay,” she has said. Elfman definitely does. “She enjoys her life,” says her makeup artist Ann Masterson. “She’s very secure with who she is.” . . . To keep her body toned, Elfman takes ballet lessons at her home three times a week, studies yoga, drinks about 100 oz. of water a day, gets plenty of sleep, and tries to avoid sugar. And if she’s sweating getting older, she isn’t showing it. “I don’t think it matters to her,” says . . . director Peter Chesholm. “She still has such a great child within her.”6

There might (debatably) be an idea (sort of) in that last line, but apart from this the passage is loaded with concrete nouns and verbs (and measurements). It certainly isn’t necessary for you to read every line from beginning to end, and if you glance over it and identify the main words—30, comfort zone, Dharma and Greg, hit, husband, happily married, mirror, body toned—you can grasp the passage’s import without bothering with the little words.

But in Aristotle and Austen, the little words are important. “This does not of itself make them unjust or wicked men, because the harm that they did was not due to malice”: Without “of itself” and “due to,” the sentence loses its exact meaning.

Three insights offered by the speed-reading experts may be of some use to you. First: The average reader doesn’t simply move her eyes from left to right across the page. She continually glances back at what she’s already read, and then skips her eyes forward again to find her place. Sometimes this is an important part of understanding; in reading the passage from Aristotle’s Ethics, you might find yourself glancing back at the definition of Mistake as you read about Misadventure, in order to keep the difference clear in your mind. But often this compulsive backtracking becomes a bad habit that slows you down unnecessarily. Putting your finger on the page and moving it as you read can help you become conscious of whether you’ve formed this habit; try it first with simple prose, and see whether your eyes tend to leap backward and forward away from the point marked by your finger.

Second: When reading a difficult passage, you may find it helpful to make an initial sweep with your eyes over a paragraph, looking for concrete nouns, action verbs, and capitalized letters, before settling down to read it from beginning to end. When scanning a paragraph in this way, try to follow a Z-shaped pattern down and across the page. A scan of the passage from the Ethics would give you the words Mistake, Misadventure, and Injury (which, in the Penguin edition, are capitalized); the words ignorance, malicious, premeditation, and feelings might also stand out to your eye. Even before reading, then, you know that Aristotle will be distinguishing three kinds of errors, and that human intention will have something to do with the classification. Now your “slow reading” of the passage will probably be a little more effective.

Third: Peter Kump’s Rule Three (“The more prior knowledge of the subject of a written passage the reader has, the easier it is to read fast”) should encourage you: serious reading, difficult at the beginning, gets easier and easier. The lists in this book are organized chronologically and by subject, so that whether you choose History or Poetry, you’ll begin with the earliest works on the subject. These are likely to be the most difficult because you’re not familiar with the conventions of the field, with its peculiar vocabulary, the structure of its arguments, the information it takes for granted. (And neither was anyone else, when those foundational works were written.) But as you continue to read books in the same field, you’ll find the same arguments, the same vocabulary, the same preoccupations, again and again. Each time you’ll move through them more quickly and with more assurance. You will read faster and with greater retention—not because of a mechanical trick, but because you are educating your mind.


If you have difficulty with the actual act of reading, you may need to do some remedial skill work before tackling the Iliad. Try this diagnostic test: Glance at your watch’s second hand, note the time, and then read the passage below at your normal speed.

Books which we have first read in odd places always retain their charm, whether read or neglected. Thus Hazlitt always remembered that it was on the 10th of April, 1798, that he “sat down to a volume of the New Eloise at the Inn of Llangollen over a bottle of sherry and a cold chicken.” In the same way I remember how Professor Longfellow in college recommended to us, for forming a good French style, to read Balzac’s Peau de Chagrin; and yet it was a dozen years later before I found it in a country inn, on a lecture trip and sat up half the night to read it. It may be, on the other hand, that such haphazard meetings with books sometimes present them under conditions hopelessly unfavorable, as when I encountered Whitman’s Leaves of Grass for the first time on my first voyage in an Azorian barque; and it inspires to this day a slight sense of nausea, which it might, after all, have inspired equally on land.7

Look again at your watch. How long did it take you to read this passage? Count the unfamiliar words in this passage. How many did you find? If you don’t know what a barque is, can you figure it out from context?

What is Higginson’s point?

If it took you a minute or less to read this passage, you are already reading at an appropriate speed for serious prose. If you found no more than ten unfamiliar words in this passage, your vocabulary is already at the so-called tenth-grade literacy level, which means that you are technically capable of reading anything that’s written for an intelligent layperson. If you guessed that a barque is a kind of boat, you know how to gather clues for unfamiliar vocabulary words from context. And if you managed to figure out (unfamiliar proper names notwithstanding) that Higginson thinks that the conditions under which you first read a book are likely to affect the way you remember that book thereafter, you know how to grasp the main idea of a paragraph.

If it took you more than a minute to read this brief passage, and you found more than ten unfamiliar words, you would do well to review your actual mechanical reading skills (see below). Otherwise, you don’t need to do any remedial work.

Did it take you more than one minute to read the diagnostic passage? Extremely slow readers may be victims of poor early teaching. If you were taught to read by pure word-recognition methods (in which children learn each individual word by sight, rather than being taught how to “sound out” the word by pronouncing each letter or combination of letters), you may be recognizing the shape of each word as you read.8 Although many readers are able to do this fairly quickly, others can’t. And since “sight reading” depends on repeated exposure to a word before you can reliably recognize and remember it, “sight readers” can have great difficulty with more complex reading that contains a number of unfamiliar words. If you are both a slow reader and a poor speller, you’re probably guessing at the meanings of words from their shapes, rather than truly recognizing and understanding them; you’re unable to spell because you have no memory of the letters in each word (instead you’re just guessing at the word’s meaning because of its shape). You may be able to improve your reading speed by working through a remedial phonics text such as Phonics Pathways, which will retrain you to read words from left to right, decoding them by sounding them out. This will allow you to recognize unfamiliar words more quickly (and will probably improve your spelling as well). Use the first fifteen minutes of your scheduled reading time each day to work on remedial phonics skills until you finish the book.

Did you find the vocabulary of the passage overwhelming? A vocabulary-building course will increase your mental store of words and will speed up your reading, since you won’t have to pause as often to puzzle over unfamiliar words. Wordly Wise 3000 (published by the respected educational press Educators Publishing Service) covers over three thousand frequently occurring words, chosen to bring your vocabulary up to twelfth-grade level. Each lesson contains fifteen words, along with exercises aimed to help you use words correctly in context. The series begins at primary level and goes through high school. Most adult readers should probably start with Book 6, although you could back up to Book 5 if you feel truly ill prepared. There is a shift in difficulty between Books 5 and 6; the analogies become more difficult, and the reading exercises much more complex.

The Vocabulary from Classical Roots series, also from Educators Publishing Service, is a good follow-up to Wordly Wise. As a matter of fact, many readers (not just those doing remedial work) may find this series helpful in preparing to read classic literature. Each lesson gives several Greek or Latin roots, lists of familiar words using those roots, and lists of unfamiliar words along with exercises in proper use. The five books in the series (A, B, C, D, and E) are all on the same level of difficulty, but they progress from the most familiar roots to those less frequently used. In Book A, for example, you’ll get duo, the Latin root meaning “two,” along with duplicity and duplicate; in Book E, you’ll get umbra, the Latin for “shade, shadow,” along with the vocabulary words umbrage and adumbrate.

As with remedial phonics, use the first fifteen minutes of your scheduled reading time each day to work on these vocabulary skills.

Do you want to improve your reading speed? Read the first section of Chapter 3 and practice moving your finger from left to right. Do your eyes tend to jump backward from your finger, even when you understand what you’ve already read? If so, you should spend several weeks using your finger to read, in order to retrain your eyes to move forward. Remember that it’s always fine to look back for content—but you don’t want your eyes to skip backward out of habit.


Dolores G. Hiskes, Phonics Pathways: Clear Steps to Easy Reading and Perfect Spelling, 10th ed. (Jossey-Bass, 2011).

Kenneth Hodkinson, Sandra Adams, and Cheryl Dressler, Wordly Wise 3000: Systematic Academic Vocabulary Development, 3rd ed. (Educators Publishing Service, 2012). Books 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12.

Norma Fifer, Nancy Flowers, and Lee Mountain, Vocabulary from Classical Roots, 3rd ed. (Educators Publishing Service, 1998). Books A, B, C, D, and E.


1Genesis 32: Jacob, wandering along the banks of the Jabbok river in the dark and dreading the prospect of meeting on the next morning his estranged brother Esau (not to mention all of Esau’s well-armed followers), meets a man and wrestles with him there until morning. When day breaks, the man touches Jacob’s hip and throws it out of joint, leaving him with a limp. Although the mysterious stranger is never unambiguously identified, he gives Jacob a new name—Israel—just as God renamed Abram, earlier in the book; and Jacob himself says, “I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” (As with all great literature, it’s best to read the original rather than depend on my summary.)

2Kirkpatrick Sale, Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution: Lessons for the Computer Age (New York: Perseus, 1996).

3Peter Kump, Break-Through Rapid Reading (Paramus, N.J.: Prentice Hall Press, 1998), pp. 212–13.

4Aristotle, Ethics, trans. J. A. K. Thomson, rev. Hugh Tredennick (New York: Penguin, 1976), pp. 192–93.

5Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, chapter 4.

6Susan Horsburgh, Sonja Steptoe, and Julie Dam, “Staying Sexy at 30, 40, 50, 60,” People, vol. 56, no. 6 (August 6, 2001): 61.

7Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “Books Unread,” Atlantic Monthly, March 1904.

8I have no wish to reopen the phonics versus whole-language debate here; Jessie Wise and I treat this at greater length in our book The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home. Briefly, though: The best reading programs combine phonetic “decoding” skills (in which children are taught the sounds of letters and letter combinations as the first step in reading) with plenty of reading and oral language work (“whole language” techniques). However, if you learned to read sometime between 1930 and 1970, you were most likely taught pure “sight recognition” with no phonetic decoding at all (and although phonics began to return to favor in the late 1960s, plenty of classrooms from 1970 to the present have eliminated phonetic skills completely from their reading programs). If you learned to read through “sight methods” and are having trouble reading, the method obviously didn’t work for you; you will benefit by learning the phonetic decoding skills that you missed back in first grade.