One of my favorite YouTube channels, Philosophy Tube, recently posted a video simply titled “How to Read Difficult Books,” in which the show’s host, Olly Thorn, offers five tips for doing just that.
Some of Thorn’s tips are fairly standard fare: take notes, don’t be afraid of rereading passages, etc. But the first tip he offers is perhaps the most interesting: “Read Two Books at Once.”
It seems like an odd bit of advice, especially when it comes to reading philosophical texts (the kind that Thorn’s viewers probably have in mind when they ask about reading difficult books). Whether it’s because the language is now antiquated or the concepts are abstract, a philosophical text can be a great challenge to work through on a word-by-word and paragraph-by-paragraph level—even with completely undivided attention. Why suggest that someone tackle another book on top of that?
Thorn brings up one crucial reason, one which is kind of obvious when said aloud. Reading two books at once means you will have to stop reading one to work on the other. It encourages you to break a difficult text into discrete units, rather that rushing from one section to another. To quote Thorn:
Often with academic books, they’ll try and say a lot in the chapter and it’ll be quite meaty, and if I try to sit and read two chapters of an academic book in one reading, the points that it’s making will just kind of tend to bleed into one, and I won’t really remember it very well. But if I physically stop myself and then pick up a chapter of something else, then I find I retain it a lot more easily.
And course, there’s the fact that reading a second book can provide some relief from the first. Especially if one book is rather dense or dry, a little fanciful escapism can help even things out. (Poetry, I find, fulfills a similar function. You can revel in the aesthetic pleasures of language for moment, rather than just piecing together its semantics.)
For me, though, the reason to tackle multiple books at once is all about drawing connections. Suppose you are reading a book on ethics. It might help, for example, to read a play or a novel at the same time, because you can think about the moral decisions of the various characters in the context of whatever philosopher’s theory of ethics. Would that philosopher approve or disapprove of how they act? This approach was really helpful for me in my last semester of undergrad—Aristotle’s system of virtue ethics made more sense to me when I could apply it to Thomas Middleton’s play Women Beware Women, which I was reading for a different class.
I obviously can’t guarantee that any two texts will pair well together. (I’m not sure reading Shakespeare would make modal realism any clearer, for example.) But you may be surprised at the connections you’ll find; that’s more-or-less the thrust of the soon-to-be-defunct PBS Idea Channel. Even if the connections are tenuous, the simple act of making them can at least make the ideas easier to remember.
So don’t be afraid to double-up on the readings.
Just don’t do it like this: