This is the first of a new series about reading. In this issue, we are very honoured to have Professor ZHANG Longxi as our guest to share his views about reading and offer some advice to help us enjoy our reading. This interview was conducted by email.

Jocelyn CHU: With the rushed pace of life nowadays, students tend to read fewer books and favour information from instant access resources like internet and television. What do you think is the biggest advantage of getting knowledge from a book rather than other media?

Professor ZHANG: Reading is the best way to gain knowledge and nothing can replace it. In this age of internet and digital communication, reading is still irreplaceable because reading a book and thinking about what you read will give you knowledge in depth better than a quick glance at available information on the screen. Real knowledge needs learning, thinking, reflection and gradual absorption. Reading is the best way to do precisely that.

It is wrong to believe that you should only read books directly related to the subject of your study in college, because university education is best understood as providing basic knowledge and a life-long passion for learning. Only by developing a wide range of interests and by reading books beyond your narrow specialty will you become a truly educated person with a sense of culture and tradition. “Reading maketh a full man.” Francis Bacon’s famous advice is still helpful in our time.

Jocelyn: Yes, reading means a lot to fulfill a person’s potential, so we should get the young into bookstores more often and encourage their development. Let’s talk about best sellers. What do you think about the books that get the most popularity?

Professor ZHANG: The value of a book is not to be judged by its popularity or commercial success, so best sellers are not necessarily good, but they are not necessarily worthless, either. Some classics became instant successes when they were published, but generally speaking, commercially successful books or best sellers are not the kind of books that give us the intellectually most enriching experiences, so they are often not the kind of books we most need to read.

Jocelyn: So best sellers are not necessarily the best. But compared with abstruse classics, many students do prefer contemporary books which are more readable and trendy. How do you view this phenomenon? What can we do about it?

Professor ZHANG: Classics are books that have been tested by time and found valuable by generations of readers. They may not be the easiest to read, but whatever is easy to get is probably of little value. We need introductions to classics, works that help particularly young people to understand why a book is great and valuable. Incidentally, I have recently written an introduction to one of my favourite classics, John Milton’s Paradise Lost. It is published in Chinese as 《靈魂的史詩﹕〈失樂園〉》in a series of books that try to introduce various classics, Chinese and foreign, to general readers. I would encourage our students to check them out and see whether they can help make the classics easier to understand and appreciate.

Jocelyn: Perfect! I think we’ve got the first book to recommend for the new semester. So, in general, what kind of books do you suggest for university students to read?

Professor ZHANG: I would suggest that our students read books beyond their narrow specialty and beyond their immediate, practical concerns. Great classics and important books will give you not just knowledge, but an outlook on life; they will provide wisdom and vision and make you not only knowledgeable, but reasonable and responsible, a person of moral strength and integrity.

Jocelyn: Again, “Reading maketh a full man”. Now we’ve solved the problem of “what to read”. Our last question is “how to read”. Many students feel that reading several pages of a book every day is good for digestion but lacks a sense of continuity; devouring a book in a few days helps them to absorb the main ideas yet contributes little to long-term memory. What do you think, Professor Zhang, is the most efficient reading method given limited time?

Professor ZHANG: From my own experience, I would suggest reading books not randomly, but more or less systematically, that is, read several books of a similar nature in a given period of time. This will make you learn something in depth and help you remember what you have learned. Different people may have slightly different reading habits, and it is important to find a way of reading that suits you best. In reading, no effort will be futile and no time will be wasted. Even if you don’t feel you are learning a lot at the time, in the long run you will find reading many books may have changed you profoundly, and when you look back, you will suddenly realise what you have gained from your various reading experiences.

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