Why reading hard books is important, despite how difficult it can be

In middle school and high school, your teachers probably encouraged you to seek out primary sources, which are original accounts of a topic, as opposed to secondary sources, which are retellings or summaries of the primary sources. However, teachers often don’t acknowledge an important fact: Primary sources are really boring and hard to read. If they’re historical texts, they’ll have different writing conventions, which makes them much harder to parse. Or, if they’re from the present but are academic, they’ll use language that is uncommon outside of their field. Reading a modern account that summarizes the topic, such as a Wikipedia article, can help you understand a concept much more quickly than you would’ve by reading primary sources.

With the advent of the internet, summaries have proliferated. It used to be that if you wanted to learn something, and your professor’s curriculum wasn’t working for you, the best way to learn was to go to the library and find a book with what you wanted. But now we live in a more advanced world where challenging subjects have been summarized and popularized in YouTube videos and Wikipedia articles. Learning class material via YouTube isn’t bad by itself—I’ve certainly saved many hours by watching videos by The Efficient Engineer instead of reading my textbooks—but using YouTube as your professor won’t work forever for two reasons.

First, as you continue to learn from the internet, you’re bound to notice diminishing returns. For example, there must be hundreds of thousands of videos, articles and websites out there that explain how to multiply and divide fractions or factor polynomials. Once you get higher up into mathematics and have to deal with concepts such as derivatives and Laplace transforms, though, things get trickier. There’s still information out there, but it gets much harder to find resources that will explain it better than the textbook you paid an extortionate amount of money for. Eventually, once you reach math concepts that I’m not educated enough to know the names of, you will have to accept the sad truth that not all knowledge is free and easy to find on the internet. Some of it can only be gained from an expert in the field, which is why becoming a part of an academic community is useful. But, much more often, it’ll exist in a textbook or journal, completely unsummarized. If, up to that point, you’ve been avoiding textbooks like the plague, what happens then?

Second, a person who relies on summaries can be abused by them. The act of summarizing itself involves making value judgments about what parts of a text are important, and the person making that video may not even be aware of the judgments they made. More importantly, there’s active disinformation: Someone could simply lie about what’s in the text that they’re summarizing. How would you know that they’re wrong?

This risk of misinformation isn’t just unique to us college students, though. Most people get their facts and opinions not from primary sources, but from news outlets or commentators that do the research for them. Obviously, if you relied solely on primary sources at all times, you’d spend all your time doing research and never come to any conclusion. But being a responsible agent of knowledge means that when your brain tells you that something doesn’t seem right, you have to do the research the hard way. Still, being good at reading complex works is important in other ways. Being able to parse legal documents, tax forms or contracts can help you catch important points that you otherwise would’ve missed.

This is why it makes me sad when I ask my classmates about what they’ve read recently and they say, “Oh, I haven’t been able to keep up with reading over the past few years.” Reading difficult material is a skill, and you’ll get better at it if you practice. Quite a bit of being able to parse difficult passages is just a matter of vocabulary and experience. If you know what that word means, or if you’re familiar with that rhetorical flourish, then the task of understanding becomes that much easier.

But reading doesn’t have to be a chore—if it seems like it is, you just haven’t found the right genre yet. I personally had been slowing down on my reading habits until I discovered “creative nonfiction”: the art of weaving true but disconnected events into a coherent story. Another obstacle might be the form factor. I used to be a big stickler for physical books, but then I discovered that I read more books when they’re in an open browser tab instead of being buried at the bottom of my backpack. Hence, it’s understandable why reading might fall by the wayside for students with so much on their plate. But never, ever stop reading—it’s far too important of a skill to ever give up.

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