How to study texts in a principled way

Group of Kohanim studying the Halachot of Tumah and Taharah in anticipation of the coming of Moshiach.
This page is part of an ERW course, Religious practice.
By John Eagles, June 15, 2010.

Many of us get to read many texts in the form of books and articles. How can we study this in a principled way, meaning how can we extract truth from it and not be influenced by lies or confused ideas?

What i am explaining here does not only apply to reading texts. The same principles apply to hearing lectures or speeches or seeing films or videos. But it is simplest for me to explain the method for written texts.

This will only be a very short outline of a method in which i have disciplined myself for a very long time. Therefore, many questions will probably remain after reading this, but i hope this will be helpful.

Because much of what is offered to us to read is a mixture of truth and untruth and half-truths, the first stage is:

1. Separate useful from useless and true from untrue

This begins with choosing which texts you want to read. Give preference to books or articles from that you expect to gain something, that teach you something important. When you read a book or text, first browse through the chapters, the headlines and the pictures. This gives you an impression if this is worth your time. It also gives you a first overview of the content and this helps to more quickly digest the content when you're going to read it entirely.

Suppose you decided now that you want to read or study a certain text. How to go about it? Depending on how seriously you want to study it, the method will be different. But at any rate, when you read it, keep asking yourself whether what you read is true. You may use pens with different colors to distinguish what you think is important and true from what is meaningless or untrue.

Some tips to distinguish what is likely untrue or unimportant from what is true:

  • Truth is always logically consistent. This means that given arguments or facts won't contradict one another.
  • Truth is usually clear. When you read something that is very unclear and confused, it probably is because what is written is not true or only half true.
  • Learn to rely on your intuition for this. You develop your good intuition through prayer and study of books that give you principled truth. Also applying the method as described here will sharpen your intuition over time.
  • If you really don't understand something and therefore can also not judge well if it is true or not true, don't bother about it. You build up knowledge and understanding with what you understand, not with what you cannot comprehend. Just leave such a text for later.
  • Always try to understand what motivation and background the writer has. If you cannot trust that he has unselfish intentions it is more likely that there are mistakes in what he or she writes.

2. Emphasize the meaningful and essential parts

Once you have gone through the first stage you can now pay more attention to what remains. Try to figure out what are the core thoughts proposed in the paper. Try to find out what are headlines and what are subordinate ideas. Find the logical structure in what you read. You can use pens with different colors to underline or highlight what is more central. You can also make notes in the book or article or on a separate piece of paper or in a document in your computer. When you think you should really learn the content well it may be advisable to make your own extract of the book or article. There are many different ways, but in the second stage it is most important to emphasize what is central and important and to understand the logical structure.

3. Deepen your knowledge and understanding

In the third stage you once again go through the article, but guided by your notes, highlights, extract. You can dive deeper by memorizing the content, thinking, meditating or praying about it. You can also do research in other books, papers or on the internet. In the end you want to experience that you really learned something valuable which you won't forget again and which will help you in your daily life or mission. Don't just collect information in your head like books pile up in a library. Make sure that everything you have read helps you to grow in your course to God. It can happen in this stage that you get inspiration to write something yourself. This may be in the form of notes for yourself or even an entirely new text that you publish.