Scott H Young

How to Read Books You Disagree With


Several months ago, I wrote an entry entitled, “Is It Better to Read Books You Disagree With?”.   It’s human nature to fill your life with people, books and media that agrees with you.  Liberal viewers are more likely to watch The Daily Show than The O’Reilly Factor.  Fundamentalist Christian readers would probably prefer reading, Of Pandas and People rather than Richard Dawkins.

While this may be human nature, that doesn’t mean it’s optimal.  When you only read authors and books you agree with, you aren’t going to be challenged.  Defending an elegantly crafted argument from the opposing side will teach you far more about an issue than simply nodding your head along to your favorite writer.

And the best benefit of reading books you disagree with is that sometimes they change your mind.  You develop a more sophisticated view of the world when you’re shown a different perspective.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to draw a few conclusions about reading books you disagree with:

  1. They are more mentally stimulating.
  2. They have a greater chance of giving you new ideas.
  3. You learn more from having to defend against an argument, than by swallowing one where you already agree with the conclusion.

The only argument I’ve seen for not reading disagreeable books is that somehow, reading a book you disagree with will taint your mind and you may be converted over to the opposite side.  For people who follow this logic, it either means that their skills with logic are so poor that they will be easily overwhelmed by broken arguments, or they are genuinely worried they might be wrong.

Good in Theory, Hard to Do In Practice

In theory, this idea sounds great, and in the article, I left the idea at that.  But there’s one problem with this approach: it’s incredibly hard to do.  Looking through the bookstore, it’s incredibly hard for me to pick up a book and pay $30 to disagree with someone from cover to cover.

The other problem is one of taste.  Even if you buy the book, can you stomach it the whole way through?  Reading a book you disagree with completely might not be nearly as enjoyable as following your favorite author defend an idea you already believe.

I think there’s three strategies you can use to expand your reading diet: cycling, picking fringe books and focusing on quality over viewpoint.

Strategy One: Cycling

This tip is simply to cycle your books, so for every book you select where you agree with the main conclusion, pick one where you disagree.  Rotating is easier than only reading authors you don’t agree with, and it’s more effective than just sticking inside your own camp.

If you’re reading a well-written book, debating against the argument can feel like trying to take down a professional boxer.  They have spent years structuring and researching their perspective, so if you aren’t prepared it can be overwhelming to articulate your side.  By reading from both camps you can have a more balanced perspective, making reading a disagreeable book less threatening.

Strategy Two: Fringe Books

The next tip is to pick books where you agree with most of the author’s points, but begin disagreeing with a few ideas.  This is easier to handle since you have more common ground with the author.

How do you decide whether a book fits this category?  Read the jacket to get a rough idea what the conclusions are going to be in the book.  If you do this, and find it hard to decide whether you agree or disagree, then it’s a good book to read.

I almost never look for books where I completely agree with the premises.  The best books fit somewhere in this category because they are more interesting, but less frustrating than books where you have little in common with the author.  These are also the books most likely to persuade you, since you don’t immediately close your mind when you start reading.

Strategy Three: Look for Quality, Not Perspective

Book reviews in blogs and newspapers are often how I find new books to read.  Although this tip might make me a snob, I believe critical support helps me weigh a book’s merits.  A book I disagree with, but has provoked intelligent reviews is worth considering.

The purpose of reading books you disagree with is to test you mentally.  But this doesn’t stand if the arguments used in the book are irrational and broken.  Intelligent discussion about a book is a good sign that, even if you disagree, you will at least be challenged by reading the book.

It’s a Big Library, Pick Wisely

The degree to which you disagree with the author isn’t the only factor when choosing a book.  Interest in the topic, relevance to your life and entertainment are all important.  So is the decision for your next book to be fiction or non-fiction.

But yesterday I walked through my campus library to find a new book to read.  There are tens of thousands of books stored there.  In a lifetime, I doubt I’d be able to read even a tenth of the books contained there.  With so much to choose from, and so little time to actually read, it pays to think a little about what you pick off the shelf.


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9 Responses to “How to Read Books You Disagree With”

  1. ggw_bach says:

    maybe reading books that present a viewpoint you don’t agree with is not the best way to challenge yourself; such approaches involve a big commitment, and an actual spending of money. TV media is not necessarily a better route; as the presentation can usually be quite inflammatory. I’ve found audio interviews to be an exceptional way to expand the mind’s vocabulary of ideas. Especially when done by an interviewer who is sympathetic but not partisan, and asks non-attacking questions. KERA’s ‘Think’ program has been an ear opener for me in such respects.

  2. J.D. Meier says:

    I get the most out of books that surprise me.

    I find my own arguments are stronger if I’m rounded in the alternative points of view. Multiple perspectives is the best vantage point.

  3. James says:

    I find that I tend to learn more from books that surprise me also.

  4. Azzeyi says:

    I can’t understand why one ought to agree or disagree with something; my approach to reading is to suspend judgement indefinitely, as I see no reason to agree or disagree with what I read, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. A book on scientotechnology, for example, might conclude that civilization is a good thing, while a book on anarchoprimitivism might conclude that it is not. Which one is better? Well, I think there is no such thing; there is no conclusion, theory, worldview, or ideology that is perfect, and indeed none is in any way better or worse than the rest. Everything is just part of the human mind. I read because I want to study the human mind in order to better understand myself, so I feel no urgency to judge books. I just read them, try to understand the writer’s state of mind and general worldview, and then I proceed with the next book, whatever it is: fiction or nonfiction, political or religious, freemarket or communist, fascist or anarchist, nationalist or democratic, scientific or technical, artistic or down-to-earth, academic or popular, sociological or psychological, self-help or reference, historical or current, banned or mass-marketed, in English or in French, in Latin or in Greek, in Russian or in German (yes I do know all these languages). The tip is to suspect judgement and study the author’s inner mind rather than their propositions in print. The book is merely a unanimate product of a living mind, and if you only focus on the book itself or its conclusions and try to judge it according to your own philosophy you miss the opportunity to expand your mind by comprehending the mind of the author whose book you read. While you might think that reading a book helps you expand your mind, I assure you that it doesn’t; reading books only gets you into contact with the wider human intellect and expands your own intellect, but not your mind. The mind has a lot more than a mere intellect: it has emotions, will, pathologies, and instincts, all of which are slightly different from person to person, and it is these differences that you can understand by reading without judging. This understanding can make you a more complete person, effectively copying part of the mind of the author into your own mind, and as a result you will be able to explain humanity better and use this insight for whatever you want, according to your own will.

  5. Scott Young says:

    Azzeyi,

    Perhaps you’re correct. But you just spent a long paragraph saying why you disagreed with my idea, so at some level that seems to refute your point.

    -Scott

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  9. not going to put my name says:

    I find that my day is best when I deliberately get into an argument with a class mate. This may sound ridiculous but it reaches the same point of this article I like to argue because it extends my ability to formulate answers ideas and points of view. This is going to be my next step.

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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