Dear Princess ‘Ishka,
It is especially in these times, the era of mass media influence and orientation of public opinion, of fake news and “alternative facts”, that healthy information should be sought and valued the most. The hard question concerns more precisely, how to find sources we can hold as reliable. As a matter of fact, conspiracy theories abound to the extent that it has become difficult to distinguish between truth and falsity.
I consider retreat into skepticism a dangerous path to undertake, for it leads to estrangement from reality and it reduces us to passive observers. To my understanding, it is always better to consciously hold a faulty position, being aware of its narrowness and ready to change our mind in case of a better alternative, rather than not to hold any position at all for fear of falling into theoretical fallacies.
It sounds like as if I am suggesting to strive for critical open-mindedness. But this is to add nothing to our starting dilemma. Open-mindedness can be considered the purpose, but a good solution relies mostly in the means to follow a chosen direction, and in the clarification of the aim itself.
Good readings, journeys and sociability are often said to be sources of open-mindedness. In this letter, I will focus on reading, because I take it to be the most widely available means of the three – sociability depends too much on one’s subjective character and travelling is not always affordable.
First of all, we need to understand the relevant meaning of “good” when talking about readings, which are supposed to open our minds. A lot of people say proudly how “good readers” they are because they devour plenty of novels about kings, dragons, vampires, witches, romance and so on. Indeed, there are many excellent books and short stories about such themes, but they will hardly be of help in our quest for open-mindedness.
I don’t mean that good readings should necessarily be boring essays or highly complicated articles about the Stock market. Good readings in the sense I am talking about could be even fictional books, but grounded on facts or on solid arguments.
Apart from obvious exceptions, most literary genres are good to enhance our ability of freely thinking, but not all books and articles of each genre will do the work. Some books are good to enhance our literary and esthetic sensitivity, to reinforce our imagination and creativity. But it is important to remember that we read them in order to entertain ourselves or to be inspired. When our aim is to become more open-minded, we need to select accurately what we read.
A good strategy would be to start asking ourselves “what do I want from this article-book-essay-story? Am I just relaxing and in the need of escapism? Or do I want to know something about the world? Something factual or a well-grounded opinion? New ideas or a good interpretation of others?”
Wondering what we are looking for in a text before or while reading it, is the most fundamental step to “good reading”, because our degree of attention varies from time to time, our interests may induce us to focus on some topics and neglect others and we may be differently skilled in judging different kinds of opinions. The inquiry in ourselves is an often underrated part of the reading process, but the most fundamental, for it rules out the possibility of being easily influenced by poor and uncritical ideas.
The second question we shall ask ourselves, in my opinion, is “what does the author want to tell me?” and figure out if our expectations on the writing reflect the author’s intentions. A follow up question would be to know who the author is and if she has any sort of authority about the things she says. Is he an expert of geopolitics? Is she an affirmed novelist? Or a journalist who’s been on the field she is talking about? Is he a boy writing nostalgic letters to his beloved princess?
Of course, the good fame and authority of a writer won’t always grant objectivity, but they will surely help us to contextualise and better understand our relation to the object addressed. Most importantly, if we are striving for critical open-mindedness, we need to be aware that it has very little to do with relativism about opinions. We shall never forget our objective, which is to become better informed subjects, and not subjects holding whatever opinion with the excuse that truthfulness can’t be achieved. That would be even worse than complete skepticism, for it may allow the spreading of absurd, anti-scientific or even discriminatory ideas.
“Few books, but good” is a famous idea attributed to the Roman philosopher Seneca. I think we could now interpret it in the conceptual framework I’ve been now sketching: it doesn’t matter how much you read, insofar as you are aware of the author’s intentions and expertise, but mostly of what you are looking for in the first place.