Is the Upper Limit of your mind lower than it used to be? – Why you may not be Reading, or Understanding, Books – Insight from David Brooks

A personal note:  this could be significant.  Please read it carefully…

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Let’s just start with the excerpt from David Brooks.  It is important. Here it is: 

My worry is that, especially now that you’re out of college, you won’t put enough really excellent stuff into your brain. I’m talking about what you might call the “theory of maximum taste.” This theory is based on the idea that exposure to genius has the power to expand your consciousness. If you spend a lot of time with genius, your mind will end up bigger and broader than if you spend your time only with run-of-the-mill stuff.
The theory of maximum taste says that each person’s mind is defined by its upper limit—the best that it habitually consumes and is capable of consuming.
A few years ago, I was teaching students at a highly competitive college. Simultaneously, I was leading seminars for 30- and 40-somethings, many of whom had gone to that same college. I assigned the same essay to both groups, an essay on Tolstoy by the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin. The college students found it easy to read; it’s not that hard of an essay to grasp. The 30- and 40-somethings really struggled. Their reading-comprehension ability had declined in the decades since college, and so had their ability to play with ideas. The upper limit of their mind was lower than it used to be.
David Brooks, A Commencement Address Too Honest to Deliver in Person—The Atlantic, May 13, 2020

If you search out the statistics, you will discover that people kind of quit reading “serious” books after their college years.  Not all people.  But many people; too many.  Especially men.

Yes, I know the argument in favor of good novels.  But, I am mainly speaking about serious nonfiction books, and substantive essays here.  Books that take you on a learning journey; that teach you things that it would help you to know; or, maybe, even simply teaching you how to think about ideas.

I have long believed that there are book readers, and non-book readers. The comments from David Brooks maybe helps me understand the why behind this.

When you are in college, you pretty much have to read the assigned readings.  Books; essays; academic journals.  I know that I never read as much in as short a period of time as I did when I was doing graduate work at the University of Southern California.  It was a whole other level of reading.  Hundreds, thousands of pages assigned. I read, and read and read…

I remember when I first started my graduate program, it was a new field to me:  Communication: Rhetoric and Public Address.  I did not understand what I was reading.  One of my professors, a great professor, told me to just keep reading, and it would slowly begin to sink in.  He said it could take about six months, and then, I would understand as I read.  He was right.  I got acclimated to the vocabulary, to the ways of thinking.  I understood what I was reading.

I am lucky, in a sense.  I have found a way to make my living professionally by doing a fair amount of serious reading. I read books and present synopses of the books I read – somewhere around 40-50 book synopses a year. (I read more books than I present).  Business books, mainly.  But also books on social justice.  Some of the books are “popular.’’ Some are more academic.  But, my work requires me to take a deep dive into the books I present.

What David Brooks is saying is this:  use it, or you will lose it.  If you don’t keep reading, and discussing what you read, you will lose the ability to read with deep focus and understanding. And the result is that you will, in his phrase, drop down in the “theory of maximum taste” path: The upper limit of your mind will be lower than it used to be.

It’s a really alarming, and sad, insight, isn’t it?!

If he is right – and I think he is – then a whole bunch of folks need to get back to doing more serious reading.

When I present my synopses, I prepare multi-page, comprehensive synopsis handouts.  I make sure that every audience member has a copy, and I encourage them to follow along with pen in hand.  I read a significant portion of my handout aloud.  And the first section of the handout includes the best of my highlighted passages from the book.  I am, in a sense, helping my audience members read enough that it feels like something of a direct encounter with the book; with the author’s own words and ideas.

I add my own lessons and takeaways.  But, my audience members are active participants.  They are not simply watching slides, or passively listening; they are engaged with my synopsis of the text.  They are…learning.

So, what about you.  What are you doing to keep learning?  Would you be able to read a serious text, now, and discuss it intelligently?  Or is the upper limit of your mind lower than it used to be; lower than you want it to be?

Of course it would be better to read the book for yourself.  But, this is not nothing.  Maybe this could be a start to help one get back on the higher portions of “the theory of maximum taste” path.

Maybe it’s time to get back at it!

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Try one of my synopses.  Each comes with my comprehensive handout, plus the audio recording of my presentation.  You can purchase them at the buy synopses tab at the top of this page. Click here for our newest additions.

5 thoughts on “Is the Upper Limit of your mind lower than it used to be? – Why you may not be Reading, or Understanding, Books – Insight from David Brooks

  1. Kelly Kunst

    Randy,
    I don’t always make the first friday book synopsis; but when I do it always expands my thinking and understanding. Given how quickly the world is evolving and how much faster I think it will evolve; those who are not investing in their ongoing learning will fall behind. The people I know who are “lit up” are continuing to learn, evolve, and help others grow. Not only is it important economically but personally.
    Kudos for all you do; you are appreciated.

    Reply
  2. Steve Patterson

    “Would you be able to read a serious text, now, and discuss it intelligently? Or is the upper limit of your mind lower than it used to be; lower than you want it to be?”
    Randy,
    This is disturbing!
    The phrase, “lower than you want it to be,” is terribly disturbing. As an observer of the American experience, it appears to me that too many folks are determined to lowering not only the limits of their own minds, but the limits of others! My thinking controls your thinking.
    Cynical? Probably. But the noise of partisanship, tribalism, politics, whatever you want to call it, is drowning out intellectual exercising of our minds. Tweets, sound bites and optics own the stages of communication. Discussion devolves into diatribe.
    The State of Kentucky motto is “United We Stand, Divided We Fall.” United in the pursuit of expanded consciousness, we can grow in strength, understanding and stature. Divided into opposing camps, we will surely weaken, stumble and fall.
    A closed mind is a fragile mind. Keep up the great work.
    Steve Patterson

    Reply
  3. Karen Lingo Rawson

    My husband, a PhD in Molecular Genetics, is one of the most well-read people I know. He reads broadly – not just science, but a lot of history and a few novels as well as plenty of journals and essays. He’s one of the most interesting people I know to talk to. Sometimes I feel like I’ve outsourced a lot of my reading not just to you, but to him! You’re putting me to shame though in how seldom I myself crack the tough subjects – more than most folks, but far less often than I should. Like Steve P. in a previous comment, it’s to the detriment of our world that so many people stop reading – or never really got started.

    Reply

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