By Alexandros Sainidis
The amount of books and information we have at our disposal is unprecedented. Printing is considered one of the most important inventions of mankind. It’s basic purpose is to spread information and ideas across a wider audience, as paper is a relatively cheap material, while ideas can be reproduced infinitely, as long as people who remember and mention them are alive. However, having more choices can lead to choice paralysis, as a behavioural economist would say. Moreover, when we often try and read as much as possible, we tend to abandon a book in the middle, open another one, lose the train of thought of the previous book and consequently waste time – our very valuable resource. So how should we read in the twenty first century?
It depends on the purpose, and those purposes are reflected in the available material. If you are studying for an upcoming test, it is best to understand the mentality of the teaching staff and follow the notes accordingly. Based on them you can then easily navigate through the given bibliography and textbooks. Beware however, as there is sometimes a mismatch between what is taught and what is required during the exams. That being said, while some ‘inside‘ intel is required to avoid traps, it is a relatively easier and linear approach, given the incentive of a degree, the sad reminder of tuition fees and an official confirmation of your knowledge.
Research, on the other hand, has inspired a form of writing which makes the required information easier to extract. Open a publication by Routledge or Springer and you will notice that academic books are likely to be encyclopedic, divided in small and clear parts like an insect. Moreover, if you are reading electronically, by pressing ctrl + F (or cmd + F on a Mac) and searching for a keyword, one will easily find relevant pages. Although this is only a superficial process of research, the fact that there is a tendency to spearfish demanded intel just like that is undeniable. This is practical but certainly not inspiring. Even a heavy reader might become annoyed and perceive an otherwise enjoyable activity as boring: an element of story, mystery and exploration is consumed by feelings of anxiety over deadlines.
On the flip side, when a book with academic value is marketed towards a broader audience, it is presented as a best-selling story. While academics will still care mostly about the knowledge itself, it is important not to neglect that academics are also human and thus are part of that broader audience at the same time. Moreover, just as a good story revolves around the spherical understanding of the main characters involved (and their environment/setting), likewise an academic will need to better understand his sources to produce a good story and the wisdom that comes with it. And when the words in the book are wise, even a paragraph can be broken down to a commentary that could take several hours to articulate. Otherwise, if not properly digested, it will remain as ‘tacit knowledge‘: we have an abstract understanding of a concept but we cannot quite express why it is valuable to us.
Consequently, this kind of a good read is the most time consuming, yet, for a good reason. Slow cooked knowledge is the most memorable, and while not always helpful in the context of some typical academic tasks, it is a great investment for personal development. That being said, I believe a good solution to this problem would be taking the time to read the actual original classics of your respective academic discipline. In IR that would be starting with Thucydides and Machiavelli, for example, and if you are into geopolitics (yes you should be, even if your scope of studies is limited to international law), it would be wiser to first gain a better understanding of geography. Modern academic texts are filled with references of classics, and googling each and every of them to quickly check something can be disruptive to the flow of learning. If, on the other hand, you are up to date with the intellectual history and terminology, it is much easier to create the fulfilling perception that you are a faster reader, even though you are now reading slowly. People simply enjoy finishing tasks! To add to that, classics don’t have as many references to other works, making them easier to read and enjoy them for what they are.
To conclude, it is best not to be intimidated by the abundance of choices and actually commit to reading the classics, one by one, whenever possible. Try imagining the original classics as similar seeds spread and planted in different environments of thought. The ones which survive in this foreign soil evolve into diversified plants, but knowing the core characteristics of the prototype makes it easier to tell the difference and extract the added value. Do not be surprised if some of your own deductions about life suddenly seem like echoes of the past.
The Pecunia et Bellum team wishes you a Happy 2021!