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.
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.