Wang: The art of reading books

Dr. Ian Wang reads with UI visiting scholar Dr. Yimin Zhao in the Rare Books Lib. of UI 


Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the whole country is under the Stay-at-home order. In obeying the order, I have kept myself at home for social-distancing. In such an unusual circumstance there are two things I found most suitable to do: reviewing life and reading books.

Due to history reasons, after I went to a primary school for only one and a half years, China, my birthplace country, began a political movement called the “Cultural Revolution” for 10 1/2 years. Therefore, I never had the opportunity to go to middle and high schools. Apart from the one and half years studying at a local primary school, most of my school education was at home and in the real world. After the Cultural Revolution, I was admitted to study public health at a medical college.

I recall and share with my readers these most influential stories in my life on reading books:

Even today I still remember vividly what my father taught me about choosing books to read when I was a kid.

“When you read a bad book, it will more likely get you and have a bad influence on you. But when you read a good book, even a world-famous book, if it can’t move you, if you can’t learn from it, it is not a good book, or say, a useful book for you because it did not make any impact on you.”

The second experience was when I studied at Oxford University in England.

I remember that at the opening ceremony of the new school year, the vice president of Oxford University spoke about Oxford being a place where all kinds of talent, elite individuals and celebrities from all over the world. Therefore, he encouraged new students to take advantage of this unique learning environment. He warned everyone what they could learn in classrooms might be a very small part of what Oxford can offer, and 90 percent could be learned in a large social class of Oxford as a whole.

His speech fundamentally guided my study and lifestyle in Oxford. I became socially and culturally active in my student life. This lifestyle, coupled with the fully open curriculum of Oxford University, was open to students of any major. Its unique tutorial system provided students with a comprehensive, interdisciplinary and personal teaching/learning method.

At Oxford, apart from choosing major courses independently, students will have one-on-one personal supervision with their tutor on a weekly base. Usually, the tutor will give a small essay title in advance and provide a recommended reading list. 

The student will read and write according to his/her own interests and abilities, then give a face-to-face presentation of the small essay of the week to the tutor when they meet the following week. It is not allowed to read the essay, but to present or speak to your tutor/professor. 

During or after the presentation the professor asks questions and debates with the student. The focus of the debate is not on the conclusions of the essay, but how you can argue or persuade others to accept your opinions or arguments. 

There are three semesters per academic year, 10 weeks per semester. In the first week of the semester, you meet your tutor/supervisor and receive a reading list and essay topic. In the whole academic year, a student should write 27 small essay presentations and debate with the supervisor 27 times. 

There were hundreds of books recommended by the supervisor. But the number of books read and the number of pages written by the student varies greatly from person to person. Therefore, anyone who graduated from Oxford University should have the vigorous training in systematic reading, writing, speaking and debating.

The third most influential teaching I learned was when I came to UI in which I read the entire speech Dr. Wu Ting Fang (then the Chinese minister of foreign affairs’ special ambassador to the United States) gave to a national conference of the Chinese Students Alliance in America Aug. 25, 1908.

Wu pointed out: “Morality without ability is homely simplicity, but ability without morality is rascality.” 

He quoted a vivid metaphor from Lord Bacon, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested.” Then he sincerely pointed out to the students: “It must be noted that books are a great factor in modeling and influencing our morals. I would, therefore, advise you to be very careful in your choice of books. It should be borne in mind that moral worth commands respect, whether among civilized or barbarous peoples. On this point, allow me to remind you that you can learn a good deal from the people of this great and highly civilized country. The high sense of honor and manly courage possessed by the American people excite our admiration. “

Wu’s speech on reading and being a real man was so profound. I don’t know how many students who were listening at the conference were influenced. Interestingly, a whole century later after the speech, I saw an archive letter in C C Wang’s family treasure box. Wang was the president of the Chinese Students Alliance at the conference. Here is what he wrote to his children:

“Dear Children:

This is an unusual year for our family, in that all members, including one of the third generation, Gracia, were able to spend several happy days together in Washington. ...

“In commemoration of our happy gathering, mother and I thought we would make a little present to each one of you four children, a present (a lifetime subscription to the Readers’ Digest) that will be identical and will bring to each one of you the maximum amount of pleasure and benefit. ...

“From now on, you children will probably be scattered in different parts of the world, doing different kinds of work and facing different problems. But no matter where you may be, mother and I believe you will find much pleasure and derive much benefit from spending a few minutes a day in reading the articles in the Readers’ Digest every month.”

Dr. Ian Wang is the curator of the Spurlock Museum and may be contacted by email at