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.