P5.R1^Looking Inward^641^651^,,^21393^21666%
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PART 5 Readings for Writers

Do you agree with writer Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club) about the power of language? What are some other ways language can be powerful? Can you think of a student essay in this book, a fellow student's writing, or a professional reading that affected you in such a way? What was it about the writing that made it powerful?

“I spend a great deal of my time thinking about the power of language—the way it can evoke an emotion, a visual image, a complex idea, or a simple truth.” Amy Tan, “Mother Tongue”
© Joe Tabacca/AP Photo
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Introduction to the Readings

The eighteen reading selections in Part Five will help you find topics for writing. (Note that there are also nine professional essays in Part Two.) These selections deal in various ways with interesting, often thought-provoking concerns or experiences of contemporary life. Subjects of the essays include the shame of poverty; the power of family; basic life goals; practical advice on surviving the first year of college; problems with the college lecture system; ways the media influence our attitudes; and the shocks and challenges of everyday life. The varied subjects should inspire lively class discussions as well as serious individual thought. The selections should also provide a continuing source of high-interest material for a wide range of writing assignments.

The selections serve another purpose as well. They will help develop reading skills, with direct benefits to you as a writer. One benefit is that, through close reading, you will learn how to recognize the thesis in a selection and to identify and evaluate the supporting material that develops the thesis. In your own writing, you will aim to achieve the same essential structure: an overall thesis followed by detailed, valid support for that thesis. A second benefit is that close reading will also help you explore a selection and its possibilities thoroughly. The more you understand about what is said in a piece, the more ideas and feelings you may have about writing on an assigned topic or a related topic of your own. A third benefit of close reading is that you will become more aware of authors' stylistic devices—for example, their introductions and conclusions, their ways of presenting and developing a point, their use of transitions, their choice of language to achieve a particular tone. Recognizing these devices in other people's writing will help you enlarge your own range of ideas and writing techniques.

The Format of Each Selection

Each selection begins with a short overview that gives helpful background information as well as a brief idea of the topic of the reading. The selection is followed by three sets of questions:

  • First, ten “Reading Comprehension” questions help you measure your understanding of the material. These questions involve several important reading skills: understanding vocabulary in context, recognizing a subject or topic, determining a thesis or main idea, identifying key supporting points, and making inferences. Answering the questions will enable you and your instructor to quickly check your basic understanding of a selection. More significantly, as you move from one selection to the next, you will sharpen your reading skills as well as strengthen your thinking skills—two key factors in making you a better writer.

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  • Following the comprehension questions are four questions on “Structure and Technique” that focus on aspects of a writer's craft, and four questions on “Critical Reading and Discussion” that involve you in reading carefully and thinking actively about a writer's ideas.

  • Finally, several writing assignments accompany each selection. The assignments range from personal narratives to expository and persuasive essays about issues in the world at large. Many assignments provide detailed guidelines on how to proceed, including suggestions for prewriting and appropriate methods of development. When writing your essay responses to the readings, you will have opportunities to apply all the methods of development presented in Part Two of this book.

How to Read Well: Four General Steps

Skillful reading is an important part of becoming a skillful writer. Following is a series of four steps that will make you a better reader—of the selections here and in your reading at large.

1. Concentrate As You Read

To improve your concentration, follow these tips:

  • First, read in a place where you can be quiet and alone. Don't choose a spot where there is a TV or stereo on or where friends or family are talking nearby.

  • Next, sit upright when you read. If your body is in a completely relaxed position, sprawled across a bed or nestled in an easy chair, your mind is also going to be completely relaxed. The light muscular tension that comes from sitting in a straight chair promotes concentration and keeps your mind ready to work.

  • Third, consider using your index finger (or a pen) as a pacer while you read. Lightly underline each line of print with your index finger as you read down a page. Hold your hand slightly above the page and move your finger at a speed that is a little too fast for comfort. This pacing with your index finger, like sitting upright in a chair, creates a slight physical tension that will keep your body and mind focused and alert.

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2. Skim Material before You Read It

In skimming, you spend about two minutes rapidly surveying a selection, looking for important points and skipping secondary material. Follow this sequence when skimming:

  • Begin by reading the overview that precedes the selection.

  • Then study the title of the selection for a few moments. A good title is the shortest possible summary of a selection; it often tells you in several words—or even a single word—just what a selection is about. For example, the title “Shame” suggests that you're going to read about a deeply embarrassing condition or incident in a person's life.

  • Next, form a question (or questions) based on the title. For instance, for the selection titled “Shame,” you might ask, What exactly is the shame? What caused the shame? What is the result of the shame? Using a title to form questions is often a key to locating a writer's thesis, your next concern in skimming.

  • Read the first and last couple of paragraphs in the selection. Very often a writer's thesis, if it is directly stated, will appear in one of these places and will relate to the title. For instance, in “What's Wrong with Schools?” the author says in his second paragraph that “many students are turned off because they have little power and responsibility for their own education.”

  • Finally, look quickly at the rest of the selection for other clues to important points. Are there any subheads you can relate in some way to the title? Are there any words the author has decided to emphasize by setting them off in italic or boldface type? Are there any major lists of items signaled by words such as first, second, also, another, and so on?

3. Read the Selection Straight Through with a Pen in Hand

Read the selection without slowing down or turning back; just aim to understand as much as you can the first time through. Write a check or star beside answers to basic questions you formed from the title and beside other ideas that seem important. Number lists of important points: 1, 2, 3, and so on. Circle words you don't understand. Write question marks in the margins next to passages that are unclear and that you will want to reread.

4. Work with the Material

Go back and reread passages that were not clear the first time through. Look up words that block your understanding of ideas and write their meanings in the margin. Also, reread carefully the areas you identified as most important; doing so will enlarge your understanding of the material. Now that you have a sense of the whole, prepare a short written outline of the selection by answering these questions:

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  • What is the thesis?

  • What key points support the thesis?

  • What seem to be other important ideas in the selection?

By working with the material in this way, you will significantly increase your understanding of a selection. Effective reading, just like effective writing, does not happen all at once. Rather, it must be worked on. Often you begin with a general impression of what something means, and then, by working at it, you move to a deeper level of understanding.

How to Answer the Comprehension Questions: Specific Hints

The ten reading comprehension questions that follow each selection involve several important reading skills:

  • understanding vocabulary in context

  • summarizing the selection in a title

  • determining the main idea

  • recognizing key supporting details

  • making inferences

The following hints will help you apply each of these reading skills:

  • Vocabulary in context. To decide on the meaning of an unfamiliar word, consider its context. Ask yourself, Are there any clues in the sentence that suggest what this word means?

  • Subject or title. Remember that the title should accurately describe the entire selection. It should be neither too broad nor too narrow for the material in the selection. It should answer the question “What is this about?” as specifically as possible. Note that you may at times find it easier to answer the title question after the main-idea question.

  • Main idea. Choose the statement that you think best expresses the main idea—also known as the central point, or thesis—of the entire selection. Remember that the title will often help you focus on the main idea. Then ask yourself, Does most of the material in the selection support this statement? If you can answer yes, you have found the thesis.

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  • Key details. If you were asked to give a two-minute summary of a selection, the key, or major, details are the ones you would include in that summary. To determine the key details, ask yourself, What are the major supporting points for the thesis?

  • Inferences. Answer these questions by drawing on the evidence presented in the selection and your own common sense. Ask yourself, What reasonable judgments can I make on the basis of the information in the selection?

On page 782 is a chart on which you can keep track of your performance as you answer the ten comprehension questions for each selection. The chart will help you identify reading skills you need to strengthen.

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Looking Inward
Three Passions
Bertrand Russell
© Bettmann/Corbis

Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), a philosopher and mathematician, was a controversial figure on the world stage. He was imprisoned twice, first in 1918 for his outspoken criticism of British involvement in World War I, and again in 1961 for “inciting civil disobedience” while campaigning for nuclear disarmament. His writings on social, political, and educational issues led to his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. “Three Passions” is taken from the prologue to his autobiography.


Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.


I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy—ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness—that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it, finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what—at last—I have found.


With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.


Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a hated burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

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This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

THREE PASSIONS, by Bertrand Russell > Questions: Reading Comprehension
(Your score will be reported to your instructor)
  1. The word alleviate in “I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer” means

    • increase.

    • b.
    • tolerate.

    • c.
    • enjoy.

    • d.
    • relieve.

  2. Which of the following would be a good alternative title for this selection?

    • The Forces Driving Me

    • b.
    • The Truth about Love

    • c.
    • The Anguish of Life

    • d.
    • The Power of Knowledge

  3. What sentence best expresses the main idea of the selection?

    • People's inhumanity to other humans has been a source of great pain in the author's life.

    • b.
    • The author wishes he had his life to live over again.

    • c.
    • The author sees his life driven by three passions.

    • d.
    • The author has found life's struggle to be painful but ultimately rewarding.

  4. Russell compares his life's passions to

    • great winds.

    • b.
    • the stars.

    • c.
    • a bottomless abyss.

    • d.
    • a boundless ocean.

  5. Which of the following is not a reason that Russell sought love?

    • It relieves loneliness.

    • b.
    • It leads to marriage.

    • c.
    • It brings ecstacy.

    • d.
    • It provides a glimpse of heaven.

  6. True or false? Russell believes that he has gained considerable knowledge in life.

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  8. When Russell uses the metaphor of a “deep ocean” to describe his anguish, he implies that it is

    • cold.

    • b.
    • without life.

    • c.
    • almost bottomless.

    • d.
    • lacking in color.

  9. Russell implies that loneliness, at its core, is

    • a self-defeating impulse.

    • b.
    • impossible to avoid.

    • c.
    • a sign of selfishness.

    • d.
    • a fear of death.

  10. Russell implies that life for him has been

    • passionately complex.

    • b.
    • simpler than he would have imagined.

    • c.
    • so troubled that it has increased his faith in God.

    • d.
    • more materialistic than he would have wished.

  11. We can conclude that the author would agree with which statement?

    • He regrets that he could not free himself of pity.

    • b.
    • Human love is ultimately disappointing.

    • c.
    • Heaven is merely a poetic invention.

    • d.
    • A loving person naturally wants to relieve the suffering of others.

      THREE PASSIONS, by Bertrand Russell > Questions: Structure and Technique
      (Your score will be reported to your instructor)
  1. Does this essay follow the traditional one-three-one essay model of introduction, support, and conclusion? How would you outline the essay?

  2. This essay primarily is organized in terms of three causes and their overall effect. What is the effect and what are the causes? The essay can also be seen as an exemplification essay. What examples does the author provide to help the reader understand each of his lifelong passions?

  3. What kind of transitional signals—time, space, or addition—does Russell employ in the second paragraph? List the transitions you find there.

  4. Russell is a master of the use of metaphorical language. For instance, as has already been seen, he compares his anguish to an “ocean.” What other examples of metaphorical language can you find? Why do you think Russell chose to use such imaginative language, rather than write in plainspoken terms?

    THREE PASSIONS, by Bertrand Russell > Questions: Critical Reading and Discussion
    (Your score will be reported to your instructor)
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  1. Can you identify one or two passions—or at least strong influences—that have, in Russell's words, governed your life? What examples can you provide of how those passions have affected you?

  2. Do think that many people are influenced by the same passions as Russell: love, knowledge, then pity? Or do you feel that many people spend their lives influenced by other factors? What other passions or influences do people live by, in your experience?

  3. Russell writes, “[I]n the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined” (paragraph 2). Most people, whether they believe in heaven in a religious sense or not, have a concept of an ideal place of perfect love and harmony. What on earth—perhaps a place, a relationship, an individual, or a situation—comes closest to giving you a “prefiguring vision” of heaven? What is it about that place, person, or thing that seems heavenly to you?

  4. Overall, do you find Russell's statement an uplifting or a saddening one? What elements of each do you find within it? What makes one element outweigh the other, in your mind?

    THREE PASSIONS, by Bertrand Russell > Writing Assignments
    (Your score will be reported to your instructor)
Assignment 1

Write an essay in which you identify three passions that have strongly influenced your life. Like Russell, explain why each of them has been so important to you, and provide examples of how those passions have played out in your life.

Alternatively, select one particular passion, and write about three areas of your life in which this passion has influenced you.

If you choose the first alternative, your thesis statement might be something like this:

  • The love of family, a rebellious streak, and affection for the outdoors are three passions that have governed my life.

If you choose the second alternative, this is how your thesis might look:

  • My rebellious streak has strongly influenced my family life, my performance in school, and my choice of career.

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Assignment 2

Write an essay in which you describe three earthly things you've observed or experienced that have given you something like Russell's “prefiguring vision of heaven.” In other words, they have given you a sense of something ideal, pure, perfect, and beautiful. Describe your observations or experiences in rich detail so that your reader will understand why you found them so special, and explain what effect they have had on you. Here is a sample thesis for such an essay:

  • In the faces of my newborn niece, my elderly grandmother, and a seriously ill friend, I have glimpsed something like Russell's “prefiguring vision of heaven.”

Assignment 3

Clearly, “love” is a multifaceted emotion. People might say they love their spouses, love their children, love their friends, and love humankind in general, but they mean quite different things in each case. Write an essay in which you divide and classify three types of love. Give detailed examples that illustrate how each type of love is demonstrated.