To Read or Not to

Recently I saw a video clip of Dr. Shashi Tharoor, Member of Parliament, quite infamous for his idiosyncratic use of English language, wherein, a high school student asked him to give out a difficult word from his vocabulary which she had not heard.  Pausing for a moment, he said “READ”.

“Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body” said Joseph Addison – essayist, poet, playwright and politician.  Who does not want to exercise his or her mind?  Reading is bound to make you smarter; stimulate critical and analytical thinking; assimilate new information; improve problem solving skills; and the list is endless.

One who does not observe cannot paint, one who does not listen cannot sing and one who does not read can never write.  Shashi Tharoor attributes his vast vocabulary and spelling to his extensive reading.  He claimed that he hardly used a dictionary, but made out the meaning of difficult words, contextually, as it occurred in different passages or paragraphs.

Most students appearing for Medical/ Pharmacy College Admission Test (MCAT or PCAT), Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and admission tests for various management and business schools, the world over, inter alia, generally need to take on the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) test. To many, this test is a sort of Waterloo.  It is mostly a test of comprehension based on a passage(s) followed by some questions, which needs to be answered in a very short time. The CARS test is a more advanced form of the good old comprehension question that was (and perhaps sill is) a part of the English language examinations at various levels. While the latter tested only one’s language skills, the former tests ones knowledge, critical analysis and power of reasoning also.

Many students struggle with this section because it requires a certain level of intuition, or some previous knowledge of the subject.  One should be familiar with various difficult words in the passage and more or less know their precise meaning in the context in which it is used; else one is sure to take a lot more time in comprehending the passage.  Most students appearing for such admission tests are quite uncomfortable with CARS, as they are more used to formulas, theorems and theories based on scientific subjects.  Indeed, quite a few have managed to cram the subject matter without really understanding the conceptual aspects.  Unfortunately, the CARS section is not something that you can cram for, but you must prepare for it over time.  Armed with a vast array of knowledge (gained through extensive reading) and lots of practice, a student would be well ready to take on the CARS test.

CARS section is designed to test comprehension, analytical skill, and reasoning power by comprehension and critical analysis of a given passage.  To develop this skill, one suggested way is to read through the editorial page of a leading English newspaper and also any economic news paper.  While reading, even if you can assimilate ten percent of what is written, your knowledge base will increase.  Ultimately it is all about reading.

To become a better reader, the only way is to read more.  One needs to develop stamina for reading and it needs to begin at a young age.  It is obvious that the children of parents who read turn out to be better readers – they surely imitate what their parents do and perhaps the habit gets into your genes.  So, put down your mobile phones and put off your television when you are in the company of your children.  That is the time to take up a book and commence reading.  Everything from books to magazines is good material to build up your reading stamina. Remember that the CARS section will generally not contain passages pertaining to the natural sciences, it encompasses everything else.

While practising for CARS, read the passages like you would read normally.  Never try to skim through it, never skip lines – you may think that you are reading the passage fast, but you are sure to miss out on some essential information.  You are sure to ‘miss the woods for the trees.‘  If you practice ‘normal’ and perhaps a bit deliberate reading, you will realise that you are able to pick out relevant information faster.  Previous knowledge about the passage will help you immensely, but should never become a hindrance in your ability to answer the questions.

Let us take an example of the following simple passage: –

  • “While Nelson Mandela is the father of South Africa, Mahatma Gandhi is our grandfather,” Harris Majeke, South Africa’s ambassador to India, said. “Mandela was inspired by the Satyagraha campaign led by Gandhi. It was a compelling act of passive protest against oppression. This would later inspire the formation of the African National Congress and strengthen Mandela’s belief in our shared humanity.”  It is true that there is a direct connection between Gandhi’s campaign against discrimination in South Africa and the anti-apartheid movement there.  “The African National Congress, which in 1952 launched the first mass movement against apartheid under the leadership of Dr. Albert Luthuli, had been founded in 1912 on the model of the Indian National Congress, with which Gandhi had been closely associated,” writes Claude Markovits in “The Un-Gandhian Gandhi: The Life and the Afterlife of the Mahatma.”

A student who is not aware of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Claude Markovits; developments in South Africa; practice of Satyagraha as a passive protest; evils of apartheid and other such concepts will not be able to comprehend the passage well, analyse it and satisfactorily answer the questions that follow.

The best suggested way to practice for CARS is to read for pleasure and entertainment and also to make use of the Dead Time at one’s disposal.  Dead time is the time available at your disposal while you are travelling, waiting for someone or an event to happen, etc.  As Shashi Tharoor brought out, you are bound to pick up on new words and phrases, practice forming opinions, and have the opportunity to reason beyond the text.

As against reading for pleasure and entertainment, when one reads to learn, the ability to grasp the essentials conceptually from what one reads and retain it in memory for ever, is a skill that varies from one individual to another. This skill is a highly developed common denominator amongst all successful people who primarily use their brain for their success. Fortunately, this is a skill that can be acquired, enhanced and fine tuned.

The best seller “Unlimited Memory” by Grandmaster, Kevin Horsley deals with ‘how to use advanced learning strategies to learn faster, remember more and be more productive’. Be that as it may, reading for pleasure and entertainment is primary to all reading; without this habit, ‘reading to learn is nearly impossible’. Reading for pleasure is habitual, a habit that needs to be developed very early in life. Like swimming and cycling, it’s a skill that becomes increasingly more difficult to acquire with advancing years.

Our niece who used to travel by train home (four hours) on weekends from her university in Kerala once complained about ogling and eve teasing by some young male co-travellers, which used to irritate her a lot. Here the victim and the perpetrators, both have no concept of utilising dead time.  I advised her that reading would divert her attention from the ogling Romeos, many of whom, would get intimidated just by the sight of a girl with an English book (for obvious reasons) and she on the other hand, would gain knowledge, improve her vocabulary and enhance language skills.  After a month she reported success.   Now, after five years of my advice, she still continues to carry a book with her during travels and I must say that she has evolved into young woman with good general awareness.

The result of a study by Kingston University, London, showed that book readers were more empathetic than those who mainly watched television.  While watching a movie or a television show based on a book, one perceives it from the angle the director wants the viewer to perceive it, whereas while reading a book one has the liberty to pause when   needed, make assumptions and perceive  it the way  the reader wants.  Television viewers were in fact found to have more anti-social behaviour than others.  It is interesting to note that amongst readers, fiction readers showed the best social skills; comedy readers were the best at relating to people; Romance and drama lovers were the most empathetic and most skilled at seeing things through other’s eyes.

Good readers make great leaders.  Abraham Lincoln had only one year of formal education, but his reading made up for the rest.   Roosevelt was believed to have read two books a day. Thomas Jefferson had one of the most exhaustive personal libraries of his time.  Bill Gates reads about 50 books a year and as per him “Reading is absolutely essential to success.” Even in the military profession, I have observed that those who rise to the top rungs of the hierarchy possess varied qualities of the head and heart, but reading invariably is a common denominator.

  • Coming into contact with a good book and possessing it, is indeed an everlasting enrichment.”    Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam
  • “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man”  Francis Bacon
  • “Books are uniquely portable magic”    Stephen King
  •  “Time is a river and books are boats”     Dan Brown
  • “Any book that helps a child to form of a habit of reading, make reading one of his deep and continuing needs is good for him”  Maya Angelou
  • “It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it”  Oscar Wilde