How confident are you in your ability to read? To answer this question, we have to define the ability to read. Is that how fast you read? Or how broad you read in subjects? Marcus Aurelius gave his answer:
"From Rusticus … I learned to read carefully and not be satisfied with a rough understanding of the whole, and not to agree too quickly with those who have a lot to say about something."
A good ability to read means pushing for deep understanding. It's about continuous learning and reflecting. It's about criticising. It's about reading books through the author was on trial for their life.
But wait a minute, this sounds like a significant effort. Do we have to read? Why is reading important to human beings? I believe reading is one of the most efficient ways to evolve our intelligence within our limited life span. If you are an ordinary human being like me (not genetically modified like a superhuman being), the amount of useful information in our DNA is about a hundred million bits. One bit of information is like answering a yes/no question. In contrast, a novel might contain two million bits of information. Thus, a human DNA is equivalent to about fifty Harry Potter books.
From another angle, the rate of biological evolution in humans is about a bit a year. At the same time, there are about 50,000 new books published in the English language each year, containing a hundred billion bits of information. Say, genetic modification technology is a shortcut to becoming a wiser and more intelligent human being. Comparatively, reading books is a much more approachable alternative. Of course, most of this information has no use for any form of life. But still, the rate at which useful information can be added is millions, if not billions, higher than with DNA. Therefore, all we need to do is to winnow books with as much useful information as possible and read them as much as possible in our lives.
Now, back to our first question. How to read? First of all, pick the right books. My rule of thumb is to look up the classics. If you don't know where to start, start from the classics, as they were tested and verified by different generations. Also, it is encouraged to start with the books that are close to your culture. Historical and other contextual backgrounds play essential roles in most classics. Don't let them become barriers to reading. Moreover, by checking the authors' academic and professional experience, you can also understand the trustworthiness and useful information the books would contain.
Secondly, dig, dig, dig. Bring your curiosity along with reading. You shouldn't turn on fast-reading mode when you try to get a deep understanding of something. On the opposite, you take time to search if there is information unclear or unknown to you. After you have built your knowledge base, you will be able to connect different concepts from different readings and draw your knowledge map. Whenever I find a useful idea from the reading, I will write it down on a notepaper and put it on the exact page where the concept locates, like a bookmark. So, when I finish reading the whole work, I will have a stack of ideas to build my knowledge map, where they can connect and create sparks.
Finally, write about what you learned from your reading. The best part is writing as a process in which you strengthen your thinking about what you read. In other words, you have to understand what you learned to produce a piece of your work.
Each book is a mirror which reflects who we are. The more we read, the clearer we see who we are. As a writer, I appreciate whoever is reading this article right now. But also, as a writer, I can hardly tell if this piece of work is garbage or not. So, I keep it short.