In a recent video Elliot talked about the idea of reading until the first important error as a method of engaging with literature (and here is some more relevant material in the same video). I recommend watching that (short) segment of the video as context. I thought of a somewhat different context for applying the idea of reading until the first error. The idea comes up in the test prep context, in which people prepare for standardized examinations involving multiple choice questions.
In the test prep context, people might have a question where, for example, they have to pick from five different ways of writing a sentence. What the test prep people teach you to do is to find a pattern or “split” in the five options. Here is a simple example I made up:
1) Apples is delicious very.
2) Apples are being very deliciously.
3) Apples are very delicious.
4) Apples is delicious.
5) Apples they are delicious.
You can knock out 1 and 4 with just a quick glance. You don’t need to get to the end of the sentence to identify those are wrong. You can quickly see the verb agreement problem (“apples” is plural, “is” is singular) and reject the answers on that basis. Then you have more time to spend analyzing the answers that don’t have these more obvious errors.
Addressing an Objection
Many people would see the value of reading until the first error in the test prep context, when what’s at stake is saving some time on an exam. Nevertheless, they might reject taking a similar read-until-the-first-error approach with a book. But presuming the basic method of reading until the first error works to save time in smaller cases, wouldn’t it be more important to use it when hours and hours of reading some literature reference with important flaws might be at stake?
Someone might object that there is value in the big thing (such as a book) despite it having errors, and so the person being referred to the thing shouldn’t reject the book because of some error. They might further claim that this situation is different enough from the test prep example that the read-until-the-first-error approach does not apply. If value being present in the books despite errors is the problem, the person making the reference to the book could do things like the following:
- Limit the scope of what they are citing to just the material they think is good and error-free (e.g. rather than citing a book, maybe they should only cite a specific chapter or section).
- State any qualifications, disclaimers, or modifications to the literature at the time they make the reference, so that the person can read the material with those qualifications in mind (e.g. if they think part 3 of a 4 part argument they are referencing needs a change in order for them to agree with it, say that).
- Be available to explain why alleged errors are unimportant, not relevant to the reason they are citing the material, not actually errors in light of further explanations in the book, and things like that.
- Write a summary/short version of the relevant parts of the book’s material with any errors cleaned up, with important differences from the book noted, and with references to the book as appropriate.
If the person making the literature reference does stuff like this, then they can still incorporate the literature into their argument without expecting that people read stuff while having objections. The person making a literature reference should be willing to address literature errors and try to at least “patch” the literature into something that they themselves would agree with. If they are unwilling to do that, it seems unreasonable for them to cite to the literature and expect others to read on despite those others seeing flaws.