The Art Of Reading

September 21, 2010 · 13 comments

Thomas Jefferson said, “I cannot live without books.” With regards to this analogy, I feel the much the same way. My father taught me to read and write at an early age and I can’t remember when I didn’t know how to read. My teachers taught me to read everything from labels to literature, even if I didn’t fully grasp the meaning at a particular age. I learned early on, that my perception and meaning would change as I matured. Reading was and still is about exposure to ideas that provide a frame of reference for critical thinking. Aside from the learning factor, reading is entertainment; it is fun, vicarious enjoyment of the highest order.

There is an art to reading that lies in the gray area where pleasure and learning overlap.

If I truly wanted to grow, I needed to read beyond and above the current fashion in pop-psych thinking.

Choosing what to read is as important as the art of reading itself. I don’t like feel good, positive thinking, self-help books. Years ago I went through a phase, reading self-improvement books. The more of these books I read, many of which were best sellers, the more a sense of indistinguishability they seemed to have. At some point it occurred to me that most of them are shallow quasi-repetitions of original work, address a particular personality issue and are filled with insignificant platitudes and slogans. If I truly wanted to grow, I needed to read beyond and above the current fashion in pop-psych thinking.

All the great thoughts, the great minds down through history have more meaning to me than a watered down rehash of what should be apparent to most people. I’m not saying that all current books are worthless. I enjoy many well-written books with material that is fresh. One author that comes to mind is Malcolm Gladwell. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking is a refreshing look at a different approach to decision making.

The 19th and 20th centuries produced some wonderful authors and great writing. From the beauty of Walt Whitman to the darkness of Joseph Conrad, the originality of Graham Green, Robertson Davies, and the individualism of Thoreau, their indefatigable line of distinction will live forever.

How can anyone read these books and be satisfied with less?

It’s hard to write something like this without coming across as pedantic and arrogant. A young friend of mine recently told me it is fashionable to be ignorant, and has been for a number of years. Regardless of what anybody may read into this, I don’t feel smug or superior to anyone – I have different tastes in reading. The fast-food writing style that is popular today does not appeal to me any more than a romance novel would to Hulk Hogan.

The quintessential granddaddy of all self-help books is “The Power of Positive Thinking.” I didn’t like this book 30 years ago, and I don’t like it now. I would much prefer a book about the power of critical thinking than this hard to substantiate exaggerated panacea for all the world’s ills. Currently, I am reading (finished) You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier. He makes a reference to reality when he says, “You can believe that your mind makes up the world, but a bullet will still kill you.”

One of the most beautiful, humble books ever written is Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. I read and reread this book, make notes, mark it up and give a lot of thought to every sentence in it. No current book about marketing or coaching can begin to approach this little volume for sheer knowledge about life and the inevitable strife inherent in being alive.

A book I recommend to anyone who seriously wants to learn, and in the process educate themselves to the reality of the world is How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren. It is now out of print, but available used, and a Google search brings up this book online. It is not an easy read, not for the culture that expects instant answers. This book will not teach you to speed read, rather learn to read critically and retain the knowledge from great books.

A question always come to mind when I think of how I want to spend my reading time. What books did the great movers and shakers of the world read? For example, Jefferson and Adams were well educated, born into the age of enlightenment and philosophically at odds. Yet, they both read The Histories of Herodotus. Winston Churchill read only one book that he considered worthwhile over his entire lifetime – The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Is it really necessary to read all this heavy, somewhat academic stuff? Of course not. The health sage, Dr. Andrew Weil wrote in one of his books that on occasion he purposely buys a coke to drink front of people. Some are aghast that he would dare swallow such unhealthy guck. I think of books somewhat like this – its OK, it won’t kill me and it’s fun to read a comic book. I just don’t make it the main course.


Mari B September 21, 2010 at 12:17 pm

Before sleep I read fiction. I’ve been working off these lists ( ) with some deviation from time to time, but on Tuesday mornings I look forward to reading you, Hal. I look forward to the surprise of your chosen subject and to reading your insights and opinions.

Today I am particularly delighted that you mentioned Robertson Davies. For the uninitiated, here is one of my favorite excerpts from “What’s Bred in the Bone.” I am moved by the philosophy summed up in its final sentence. (And my deep affinity for peonies!)

“It was in a garden that Francis Cornish first became truly aware of himself as a creature observing a world apart from himself. He was almost three years old, and he was looking deep into a splendid red peony. He was greatly alive to himself (though he had not yet learned to think of himself as Francis) and the peony, in its fashion, was also greatly alive to itself, and the two looked at each other from their very different egotisms with solemn self-confidence. The little boy nodded at the peony and the peony seemed to nod back. The little boy was neat, clean, and pretty. The peony was unchaste, dishevelled as peonies must be, and at the height of its beauty. It was a significant moment, for it was Francis’ first encounter with beauty — beauty that was to be the delight, the torment, and the bitterness of his life — but except for Francis himself, and perhaps the peony, nobody knew of it, or would have heeded if they had known. Every hour is filled with such moments, big with significance for someone.”

(The reader is already 62 pages into the book and knows some of what became of young Francis. The significance of the book’s title reflects deciphering the early events of Francis’ life to understand what we don’t yet know about his future as an artist and critic.)

Hal, thanks for the significance you add to my Tuesday mornings.

Hal Brown September 21, 2010 at 12:35 pm

Wow! Where to start. Thanks for the wonderful comments you make; they add so much to what I have written.
Of the trilogies written by Roberson Davies. “The Cornish Trilogy” is my favorite. It’s been a number of years since I read it, yet certain scenes still, and always will remain with me. One example is the Gypsy uncle (can’t remember is name) describing his epiphany after seeing a manager scene, and talking about the ‘Bebe Jesus.’ It was so simple and pure.
And the passage you highlighted, although I had forgotten it, is beautiful.

As you know, I record books for Kathy (/the-ultimate-christmas-gift/ ) to listen to while she drives. This has worked out so well – we can discuss them almost as if we are both reading the book at the same time.

Karen September 21, 2010 at 12:39 pm

Hi Hal,

“it is fashionable to be ignorant”. I guess I must be *very* unfashionable :-) I love to read books and I can really relate to your feelings that many self-help books lately have been rehashes of what’s been said before. It’s amazing to read things in books or on blogs whereby a commenter will act as if the writers invented the topic or something. Meanwhile, the writer derived it from someone else. There is nothing unique left to write about. True in many ways, but also untrue. Unique ideas and unique individuals will always be appreciated as they stand out more. Gladwell’s Blink book was good, but I was disappointed in his books that followed.

You’ve recommended some new material to me, which I’ll be checking out. I already have in my library “How to Read a Book, but Marcus Aurelius’ book sounds really interesting. I’ll be adding that one to my wishlist.
Karen´s last blog ..Why We Sabotage Ourselves and How to StopMy ComLuv Profile

Hal Brown September 21, 2010 at 12:52 pm

I didn’t know about the ‘fashionable to be stupid’ thing until a young friend sent me some video links. I seems incredible. I can’t tell if I’m getting old and grumpy or the world is going to hell. Where do you go from stupid? Not a lot left after that.

Thanks for the comment Karen.

mari September 21, 2010 at 1:40 pm

mari´s last blog ..susan noe harmon book signing at renfro valleyMy ComLuv Profile

mari September 21, 2010 at 1:41 pm

well that worked well. here’s a link to my favorite icon:
mari´s last blog ..susan noe harmon book signing at renfro valleyMy ComLuv Profile

Hal Brown September 21, 2010 at 2:07 pm

Love the icon. Doubt it has any requirements.

Kissie September 22, 2010 at 5:04 pm

Great references, Hal.

I was an only child the first ten years of my life and by the time I was 16, how much fun could I have with a five-year-old kid (pest)! Books became my best friends, I feel you on this. Blink sounds like a definite must have or in this case, must read.

Do you have an E-Reader? A friend suggested I get a Kindle about 3 years ago, I think it was that long and now my daughter is stressing that I get something because I have the tendency to buy books I already own. :-/
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Hal Brown September 22, 2010 at 7:01 pm

Hi Kissie. I have a Kindle, about two years old. In my opinion, it is not worth what I paid for it. Maybe now ($139.00 I think) it would be. I use it when I travel, have to wait, as in a doctor’s office, etc. Otherwise, I like real books.
The thing is, the cost of books is not usually much cheaper than buying a paper copy.
When I read, I mark up the book, make notes and use a red pen. You can make clips and notes with a Kindle, but not nearly as easy as a simple book and pen.
On the up side, there are thousands of free books. I take advantage of that often.

Karen Black September 22, 2010 at 7:02 pm

Thanks for another great post. I love to read and wish I had more time to do so. You have given me some new books and ideas to explore.

Hal Brown September 22, 2010 at 7:06 pm

Hi Karen.
Just as writers write, readers read. And I suppose we all want more time for that.
Good luck.

Mike Ramsey October 6, 2010 at 12:45 pm

Honestly, I’m not fond of reading since I was a kid. I hated books, I hated notes, but I love educational materials like almanac, encyclopedia and similar stuffs. My parents used to buy these things for me. More than that, I also hate reading pocket books. As I grew older, I just want to read business related books (as a result of being a business graduate) and of course inspirational books. Reading the latter motivates me all the time! Maybe it’s just a matter of having different interest.
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Hal Brown October 6, 2010 at 1:18 pm

I see this as a problem with education today. You cannot possibly have a well rounded education without knowledge of the great books and history. Neither can you be a good citizen without knowing something of the human condition. You won’t get this from the latest fashion of motivational books.
The old saying, “I know what I like means I like what I know” is what I use as a guide for a lifelong pursuit of educating myself.
Good luck to you Mike. And I didn’t write any of this with arrogance or animosity.

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