Imagine two different scenarios: In the first, it’s a stormy afternoon and you decide to spend the day with a nonfiction book. You pick one up that looks appealing, curl up in one of the Olin armchairs, and begin reading, knowing virtually nothing about the book. In the second scenario, it’s 1:00 am and you are halfway done with a paper due the next morning, and as you research you learn that this same book might have critical evidence or arguments that are directly relevant to your thesis. So with the mission of extracting this information, you quickly jump into it. How might you read the two books differently?
Robin Hanson, an eccentric economic professor at George Mason University and creator of the blog Overcoming Bias, argues that these two situations encapsulate the two different ways we read. To illustrate the difference, Hanson compares reading to hunting. When hunters do not know what exactly they are looking for or where to find it, they search; when readers search, they no little about what exactly they want to get out of the books they are reading. On the other hand, when hunters see prey, they chase; when readers chase, they have specific goals or questions in mind as they open the book, and they know full well the entire book will not be relevant to their purpose. Robin Hanson elaborates:
In searching mode, readers tend to be less critical. If a source came recommended, they tend to keep reading along even if they aren’t quite sure what the point is. Since authors tend to be more prestigious than readers, readers tend to feel reluctant to question or judge what they’ve read. They are more likely to talk about whether they enjoyed the read, than whether the author’s argument works.
In chasing mode, readers are naturally more critical. When you are looking for something particular, it feels less presumptuous to stop reading when your source comes to seem irrelevant. After all, the source might be good for some other purpose, even if not for your purpose.
In chasing mode, you continually ask yourself whether what you are reading is relevant for your quest, or whether the author actually has anything new or interesting to say. You flip around seeking sections that might be more relevant, and you might even look up the references for an especially relevant section.
I think most college students have experienced chasing mode (the second scenario), in which they quickly but purposefully skim through a book, looking for arguments or evidence that is directly relevant to what they are trying to write. It can be an exhilarating process. Of course, such a mode of reading has its drawbacks. Most importantly, because you as the reader are focused on what you need to get out of it, you may miss some of the more nuanced or otherwise insightful points the author makes. Nevertheless, you are likely to read more astutely and critically, constantly evaluating the book in relation to your objective and extracting meanings from your reading that you otherwise would have never considered or comprehended if you read had searched rather than chased.
Despite its drawbacks, I argue that learning to chase, rather than to search, is one of the most valuable skills you can apply to writing-intensive courses at college. If you can, look ahead to the essay questions as soon as possible, and read with the essay questions in mind. If essay questions are not yet available, think about the major debates brought up in class and read with those questions in mind. But chasing mode can also be valuable outside the context of the classroom. For example, even when reading for pleasure, instead of approaching the book with a blank slate, do a little bit of research. Read the back, look up the author, and see if there are any important issues that this book may address that are especially relevant to you and your interests. Does it challenge an ideology, history, or theory you subscribe to? Chasing an objective—a particular question, however broad, you want answered by the book (e.g. to what extent does Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals challenge the ethical principles you currently live by?) —will make even pleasure reading more pleasurable and productive. As Hanson pleads, “If you read to be intellectually productive, rather than just to fill your time, consider reading while chasing something, anything.”
-By Max Yurkofsky ’11