Over 500,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to expand their knowledge and improve their thinking. Work smarter, not harder with our free weekly newsletter that's full of time-tested knowledge you can add to your mental toolbox.
Over 500,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to expand their knowledge and improve their thinking. Work smarter, not harder with our free weekly newsletter that's full of time-tested knowledge you can add to your mental toolbox.
German Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) influenced some of the more prominent minds in the world. His writings and lessons traverse time and discipline. Schopenhauer confronted similar problems with media to the ones we face.
We live under a constant onslaught of content that is not meant to live beyond the moment in which it appears.
Weaving together two of his essays, “On Authorship” (from The Essays of Schopenhauer: The Art of Literature) and “On Reading.” we can see that he foresaw the problem of clickbait in terms of its distraction from what’s important and how we can fend it off.
Let’s first turn our attention to Schopenhauer’s beliefs on the two kinds of authors and their motivations:
[T]hose who write for the subject’s sake, and those who write for writing’s sake. The first kind have had thoughts or experiences which seem to them worth communicating, while the second kind need money and consequently write for money. They think in order to write, and they may be recognized by their spinning out their thoughts to the greatest possible length, and also by the way they work out their thoughts, which are half-true, perverse, forced, and vacillating; then also by their love of evasion, so that they may seem what they are not; and this is why their writing is lacking in definiteness and clearness.
The author has a moral duty to not cheat the reader. You could write about how our media demands this cheating. For example, the 24-hour news cycle broadcasts only for the sake of filling up time and generating pageviews. It has changed our definition of ‘news.'
The author is cheating the reader as soon as he writes for the sake of filling up paper; because his pretext for writing is that he has something to impart. Writing for money [is], at bottom, the ruin of literature. It is only the man who writes absolutely for the sake of the subject that writes anything worth writing.
(There is an argument to be made that media fragmentation and low barriers drive down the monetary value of success. If this were true, it is possible that people will once again begin to create for the value of the activity and not the dollars.) We should only read good books. More than read them we should re-read them.
What an inestimable advantage it would be, if, in every branch of literature, there existed only a few but excellent books! This can never come to pass so long as money is to be made by writing. … The best works of great men all come from the time when they had to write either for nothing or for very little pay.
The problem is these bad writers, offering little timeless value, monopolize the time and attention of people that could be otherwise spent on more profitable pursuits.
They are written merely with a view to making money or procuring places. They are not only useless, but they do positive harm. Nine-tenths of the whole of our present literature aims solely at taking a few shillings out of the public’s pocket, and to accomplish this, author, publisher, and reviewer have joined forces.
The fact these views consume us underpins why our views are so shallow. Remember, Schopenhauer was writing at a time when people valued deep work and attention in a way we no longer do. As an audience it is easier to skim the surface of the volume that is available.
Oh, how like one commonplace mind is to another! How they are all fashioned in one form! How they all think alike under similar circumstances, and never differ! This is why their views are so personal and petty. And a stupid public reads the worthless trash written by these fellows for no other reason than that is has been printed today, while it leaves the works of the great thinkers undisturbed on the bookshelves.
We often forget the existence of words is no statement on their truth.
Incredible are the folly and perversity of a public that will leave unread writings of the noblest and rarest of minds, of all times and all countries, for the sake of reading the writings of commonplace persons which appear daily and breed every year in countless numbers like flies; merely because these writings have been printed today and are still wet from the press.
This is where the art of not reading comes in. We have a choice, even if we refuse to exercise it. Schopenhauer offers us guidance on what to read.
Remember rather that the man who writes for fools always finds a large public: and only read for a limited and definite time exclusively the words of great minds, those who surpass other men of all time and countries, and whom the voice of fame points to as such. These alone really educate and instruct.
Furthering this notion, he adds:
One can never read too little of bad or too much of good books: bad books are intellectual poison; they destroy the mind.
Which can equally apply to the websites and articles that consume us. Before we know it, we develop a Pot-Belly of Ignorance.
Inverting the problem Schopenhauer suggests “in order to read what is good one must make it a condition never to read what is bad; for life is short, and both time and strength limited.”
It is because people will only read what is the newest instead of what is the best of all ages, that writers remain in the narrow circle of prevailing ideas, and that the age sinks deeper and deeper in its own mire.
His rule in reading remained the one he had learned from Ovid: Pursue pleasure. ‘If I encounter difficulties in reading,' he wrote, ‘I do not gnaw my nails over them; I leave them there. I do nothing without gaiety.'
Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) might have been the original “essayist” — a proto-version of Christopher Hitchens or George Orwell. Well-read, smart, critical, and with a tendency to write in a personal tone, with references to and reflections on his own thoughts and his own life.
Montaigne was known as a well-born French statesman during the time of the Reformation in Europe, when Catholic and Protestants were viciously fighting one another over the “one true church.” (The strong, violent ideologies at play ring familiar to those of us observing extreme religious terrorism today.) A century after the delivery of the printing press to the West, the Wars of Religion coincided with two historical periods that we now consider monumental — the Renaissance and the Reformation. Such were the times molding a young Montaigne.
The son of a wealthy businessman, Montaigne was born on a chateau near Bordeaux (rough life) although his father did his best to keep him grounded — he forced Michel to spend some of his early years living with peasants in a cottage.
After a fairly rigorous education in the classics initiated by his family, a stint at boarding school, and a formal legal education, Montaigne went on to a career as a court adviser at Bordeaux Parliament, and then retired to his extensive personal library where he would begin to write. His personal essays — on topics ranging from death and the meaning of life to the cultural relativism inherent in judging Brazilian cannibals — would go on to influence every generation hence, starting with Shakespeare.
Montaigne became well-known for his devotion to skepticism in the tradition of the Pyrrhonians. In short: A constant withholding of judgment, a deep distrust of his own knowledge, and a desire to avoid ideology and overreaching. In fact, one of the pillars of the Pyrrhonian style of thought was to construct both sides of an argument as cogently as possible before leaning one way or another, something reminiscent of Charlie Munger's work required to hold an opinion and a foundation of modern legal training. This devotion of Montaigne's, combined with the personal feel and wide-ranging topics of his writing, made him the first of his kind as a writer.
In the wonderful biography How to Live: A Life of Montaigne, by Sarah Bakewell, we learn a bit about the books that influenced Montaigne himself. As would have been the case for most of his contemporaries, his primary influences were classics from Greece and Rome. He started with the 16th century's version of the Grimm Brothers: Ovid's Metamorphoses, and then moved on to Virgil's Aeneid and some modern comedic plays. In other words, Montaigne started out with works of fiction:
One unsuitable text which Montaigne discovered for himself at the age of seven or eight was Ovid's Metamorphoses. This tumbling cornucopia of stories about miraculous transformations among ancient gods and mortals was the closest thing the Renaissance had to a compendium of fairy tales…In Ovid, people change. They turn into trees, animals, stars, bodies of water, or disembodied voices. They alter sex; they become werewolves. A woman called Scylla enters a poisonous pool and sees each of her limbs turn into a dog-like monster from which she cannot pull away because the monsters are also her….Once a taste of this sort of thing had started him off, Montaigne galloped through other books similarly full of good stories: Virgil's Aeneid, then Terence, Plautus, and various modern Italian comedies. He learned, in defiance of school policy, to associate reading with excitement.
As he got older, though, Montaigne turned more and more to non-fiction, to works of real life. In his words, reading non-fiction taught you about the ‘diversity and truth of man,' as well as ‘the variety of ways he is put together, and the accidents that threaten him.'
The best material he had available to him were from the classical stylings of writers like Tacitus, historian of the Roman periods in the early years after Christ; Plutarch, the biographer of the eminent Greeks and Romans; and Lucretius, the Roman philosophical poet. In Bakewell's biography, we learn what it was he loved about these authors:
He loved how Tacitus treated public events from the point of view of ‘private behavior and inclinations' and was struck by the historian's fortune in living through a ‘strange and extreme' period, just as Montaigne himself did. Indeed, he wrote of Tacitus ‘you would often say that it is us he is describing.'
Turning to biographers, Montaigne liked those who went beyond the external events of a life and tried to reconstruct a person's inner world from the evidence. No one excelled in this more than his favorite writer of all — the Greek biographer Plutarch, who lived from around AD 46 to around 120 and whose vast Lives presented narratives of notable Greeks and Romans in themed pairs.
Plutarch was to Montaigne what Montaigne was to many later readers: a model to follow, and a treasure-chest of ideas, quotations, and anecdotes to plunder. ‘He is so universal and so full that on all occasions and however eccentric the subject you have taken up, he makes his way into your work.'
Montaigne also loved the strong sense of Plutarch's own personality that comes across in his work: ‘I think I know him even into his soul.' This was what Montaigne looked for in a book, just as people later looked for it in him: the feeling of meeting a real person across the centuries. Reading Plutarch, he lost awareness of the gap in time that divided them — much bigger than the gap between Montaigne and us.
The last point is, of course, sort of fascinating. When we think about Montaigne, he seems a whole world away. 16th century France is a place we fill in our imagination with velvet cloth and kings and queens and peasants and history class. Impossibly far in the past. But that period was only 450 short years ago; Montaigne himself was reading authors 1,500 years or more before him! A far greater gap in time. Yet he felt their insights were as relevant as when they were written — a lesson we should all learn from.
We can also get a glimpse of the kind of reader Montaigne considered himself: A pretty lazy one.
I leaf through now one book, now another,' he wrote,' without order and without plan, by disconnected fragments.' He could sound positively cross if he thought anyone might suspect him of careful scholarship. Once, catching himself having said that books offer consolation, he hastily added, ‘Actually I use them scarcely any more than those who do not know them at all.' And one of his sentences starts, ‘We who have little contact with books…'
His rule in reading remained the one he had learned from Ovid: pursue pleasure. ‘If I encounter difficulties in reading,' he wrote, ‘I do not gnaw my nails over them; I leave them there. I do nothing without gaiety.'
Although Bakewell, and we, suspect he was feigning some humility as far as his laziness; of the second point on pursuing pleasure, Bakewell writes that Montaigne took this philosophy of gentleness and freedom and, “Of this, Montaigne made a whole principle of living.”
I (Jeff) love my bookshelves. I love the physical act of having the books up there on the shelves to be looked at, admired, remembered.
When I was younger, I really enjoyed the library, and I still do. But I learned over time that for me to own a book–intellectually–I needed to own the damn book. I needed to have it close by for reference. I needed to be able to write in it and take it down off the shelf and put it back on the shelf and take it down off the shelf and put it back on the–you get it.
So I went about building my Anti-library, and today, even after giving away hundreds of books, my shelves are stocked. I've probably read half of them. But I keep adding.
Looking at my shelves recently, I saw a book I'd wanted to read for the longest time, and in fact had started over the summer, stopping after about 150 pages to move on to more “immediate” reads. (All great books, most of which I enjoyed, but not classics.)
It was The Power Broker, by Robert Caro.
It's a classic on power politics in New York in the early to middle 20th century, seen through the eyes of the brilliant and wicked Robert Moses. The glory and curse of the book, though, is that it's a doorstopper. It runs at about 1,110 pages — dense ones. I think Caro said it came to about 700,000 words. (Which was down from his original finished draft of over a million.)
It's awesomely well written, not a slog in any sense of the word, but even great books take time just due to sheer volume. The problem is, when you think about reading a book like that, even taking it off the shelf seems to generate anxiety. Let's do the math: I'm a pretty good reader, I think I read in the neighborhood of 300 words per minute. It might be plus or minus 50 words, but my guess is that's a close estimate for a text written in modern english prose.
At 300 words per minute, a 700,000 word text is going to take me 2,333 minutes, or about 39 hours to read. And there's the issue: the brain doesn't seem to like to get started on 39 hour projects it isn't being paid to complete. So, most commonly, we pick something shorter and easier. Still counts, right?
Then I thought about all of the other great works I wanted to get to in my lifetime. Caro has four (eventually five) books about LBJ that are masterpieces on 20th century American politics. I want to read Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I want to read Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and War and Peace. I want to read Boswell's Johnson. Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. More of Ron Chernow's biographies. (Titan is one of my favorites of all time and I hear great things about Alexander Hamilton.) All doorstoppers.
That got me thinking. How the heck does anyone get these books read? How do I become a person that's read all these books rather than talked about them?
We do a lot of reading for Farnam Street, but it's hard to take a week off from our standard fare to sit and read War and Peace. It's the same for any busy person with a profession that takes up their days.
The solution I devised for myself is a simple one I wanted to share. It's 25 pages a day. That's it. Just commit to that, and then do it. What will 25 pages a day get you?
Let's say that two days out of each month, you probably won't have time to read. Plus Christmas. That gives you 340 days a year of solid reading time. 25 pages a day for 340 days is 8,500 pages. 8,500. What I have also found is that, when I commit to a minimum of 25 pages, I almost always read more. So let's call the 8,500 pages 10,000. (I only need to extend that 25 pages into 30 to get there.)
With 10,000 pages a year, at a general pace of 25/day, what can we get done?
Well, The Power Broker is 1,100 pages. The four LBJ books are collectively 3,552 pages. Tolstoy's two masterpieces come in at a combined 2,160. Gibbons is six volumes and runs to about 3,660 pages. That's 10,472 pages.
That means, in about one year, at a modest pace of 25 pages a day, I've knocked out 13 masterful works and learned an enormous amount about the history of the world. In one year!
That leaves 2017 to read Shirer's Rise and Fall (1,280), Carl Sandburg's Six Volumes on Lincoln (2,000?), Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations unabridged (1,200), and Boswell's Johnson (1,300) with plenty of pages left to read something else.
This is how the great works gets read. Day by day. 25 pages at a time. No excuses.
Before anyone takes this too literally, the point isn't the number. (Although 25 pages is my literal rule.) It could be 20 pages, or 10 pages, or thirty minutes, or an hour, or 2,000 words… regardless of what “unit” of reading you choose, the math will still work out: In six months, or a year, or five years, or ten years, you'll have digested a large swath of human wisdom. Did you ever want to read Moby Dick? Or Ulysses? Or some of Jane Austen's books? Or David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest? Done! Start today. 25 pages. Then do it tomorrow. Read in the morning, read at lunch, read before bed, read at the dentist's office…it doesn't matter. Just get your pages in, day in and day out. And then you'll be a person who reads the books everyone else simply talks about.
What you choose to read is up to you. I love history. I love biography. I love science. Tolstoy aside, I don't read many novels. But the task no longer seems daunting, does it? All it takes is commitment and a little assiduity. So let's go get smart.
Happy New Year!
Thoreau moved into a cabin he built by Walden Pond to extricate himself from social life and surround himself with the simplicity of nature. The book is a collection of his insights on a range of topics gained over the two years and a few months he spent there.
Here is some of what he had to say on reading:
With a little more deliberation in the choice of their pursuits, all men would perhaps become essentially students and observers, for certainly their nature and destiny are interesting to all alike. In accumulating property for ourselves or our posterity, in founding a family or a state, or acquiring fame even, we are mortal; but in dealing with truth we are immortal, and need fear no change nor accident.
The seclusion of Walden offered an opportunity for serious reading.
My residence was more favorable, not only to thought, but to serious reading, than a university; and though I was beyond the range of the ordinary circulating library, I had more than ever come within the influence of those books which circulate round the world, whose sentences were first written on bark, and are now merely copied from time to time on to linen paper. … I kept Homer's Iliad on my table through the summer, though I looked at his page only now and then. Incessant labor with my hands, at first, for I had my house to finish and my beans to hoe at the same time, made more study impossible. Yet I sustained myself by the prospect of such reading in future. I read one or two shallow books of travel in the intervals of my work, till that employment made me ashamed of myself, and I asked where it was then that I lived.
It's the labour of reading that makes it worthwhile.
The student may read Homer or Æschylus in the Greek without danger of dissipation or luxuriousness, for it implies that he in some measure emulate their heroes, and consecrate morning hours to their pages. The heroic books, even if printed in the character of our mother tongue, will always be in a language dead to degenerate times; and we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of what wisdom and valor and generosity we have. The modern cheap and fertile press, with all its translations, has done little to bring us nearer to the heroic writers of antiquity.
The classics are the noblest thoughts and require training.
Men sometimes speak as if the study of the classics would at length make way for more modern and practical studies; but the adventurous student will always study classics, in whatever language they may be written and however ancient they may be. For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles which are not decayed, and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave. We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old. To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.
The work of art nearest to life itself …
What is called eloquence in the forum is commonly found to be rhetoric in the study. The orator yields to the inspiration of a transient occasion, and speaks to the mob before him, to those who can hear him; but the writer, whose more equable life is his occasion, and who would be distracted by the event and the crowd which inspire the orator, speaks to the intellect and health of mankind, to all in any age who can understand him.
No wonder that Alexander carried the Iliad with him on his expeditions in a precious casket. A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself.
Books are the wealth of the world …
Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them. Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind.
Most people don't know how to read a book, a point that Thoreau echos:
The works of the great poets have never yet been read by mankind, for only great poets can read them. They have only been read as the multitude read the stars, at most astrologically, not astronomically. Most men have learned to read to serve a paltry convenience, as they have learned to cipher in order to keep accounts and not be cheated in trade; but of reading as a noble intellectual exercise they know little or nothing; yet this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxury and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while, but what we have to stand on tip-toe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to.
On the connection between books and culture …
The best books are not read even by those who are called good readers. What does our Concord culture amount to? There is in this town, with a very few exceptions, no taste for the best or for very good books even in English literature, whose words all can read and spell. Even the college-bred and so-called liberally educated men here and elsewhere have really little or no acquaintance with the English classics; and as for the recorded wisdom of mankind, the ancient classics and Bibles, which are accessible to all who will know of them, there are the feeblest efforts anywhere made to become acquainted with them.
And one of my favorite passages on the two types of illiterateness:
We are underbred and low-lived and illiterate; and in this respect I confess I do not make any very broad distinction between the illiterateness of my townsman who cannot read at all and the illiterateness of him who has learned to read only what is for children and feeble intellects.
It is not all books that are as dull as their readers. There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on the face of things for us. How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book! The book exists for us, perchance, which will explain our miracles and reveal new ones.
We spend more on our bodies than our minds.
We boast that we belong to the Nineteenth Century and are making the most rapid strides of any nation. But consider how little this village does for its own culture. I do not wish to flatter my townsmen, nor to be flattered by them, for that will not advance either of us. We need to be provoked—goaded like oxen, as we are, into a trot. We have a comparatively decent system of common schools, schools for infants only; but excepting the half-starved Lyceum in the winter, and latterly the puny beginning of a library suggested by the State, no school for ourselves. We spend more on almost any article of bodily aliment or ailment than on our mental aliment.
Walden is a classic for a reason.
One of the most timeless and beautiful meditations on reading comes from the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860).
Finding time to read has never been an issue for me. I read different books at different levels — you don't put the same effort into Harry Potter as you do Seneca. Reading is the best way to get smarter. And while I've always taken notes while reading to improve my ability to remember what I've read, I've had a nagging feeling that I was missing part of the work.
Perhaps, I've been reading too much and reflecting too little.
As I reflect more on the relationship between reading and acquiring wisdom, I discovered Schopenhauer's classic On Reading and Books.
For me, reading has always been about this website's tagline: Mastering the best of what other people have already figured out.
In The Prince, Machiavelli offered the following advice: “A wise man ought always to follow the paths beaten by great men, and to imitate those who have been supreme, so that if his ability does not equal theirs, at least it will savour of it.”
Seneca, writing on the same subject, said, “Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides.”
So it makes sense to start with the people that came before us. No matter what problem we face, odds are someone has faced it before and written about it. No need to start from scratch right?
We return to the fundamental questions. What does it mean to read? Is reading the path to acquiring wisdom? If not why?
These are the questions that Schopenhauer attempts to address.
Mortimer Adler believed that reading is a conversation between you and the author. On this Schopenhauer comments:
When we read, another person thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental process. It is the same as the pupil, in learning to write, following with his pen the lines that have been pencilled by the teacher. Accordingly, in reading, the work of thinking is, for the greater part, done for us. This is why we are consciously relieved when we turn to reading after being occupied with our own thoughts. But, in reading, our head is, however, really only the arena of some one else’s thoughts. And so it happens that the person who reads a great deal — that is to say, almost the whole day, and recreates himself by spending the intervals in thoughtless diversion, gradually loses the ability to think for himself; just as a man who is always riding at last forgets how to walk.
Such, however, is the case with many men of learning: they have read themselves stupid. For to read in every spare moment, and to read constantly, is more paralyzing to the mind than constant manual work, which, at any rate, allows one to follow one’s own thoughts.
Just as a spring, through the continual pressure of a foreign body, at last loses its elasticity, so does the mind if it has another person’s thoughts continually forced upon it. And just as one spoils the stomach by overfeeding and thereby impairs the whole body, so can one overload and choke the mind by giving it too much nourishment. For the more one reads the fewer are the traces left of what one has read; the mind is like a tablet that has been written over and over. Hence it is impossible to reflect; and it is only by reflection that one can assimilate what one has read if one reads straight ahead without pondering over it later, what has been read does not take root, but is for the most part lost. Indeed, it is the same with mental as with bodily food: scarcely the fifth part of what a man takes is assimilated; the remainder passes off in evaporation, respiration, and the like.
From all this it may be concluded that thoughts put down on paper are nothing more than footprints in the sand: one sees the road the man has taken, but in order to know what he saw on the way, one requires his eyes.
It's important to take time to think about what we're reading and not merely assume the thoughts of the author. We need to digest, synthesize, and organize the thoughts of others if we are to understand. This is the grunt work of thinking. It's how we acquire wisdom.
This is how we acquire foundational knowledge. The knowledge that allows us to pull forth relevance when reading and bring it to consciousness. Without this foundational knowledge, we are unable to separate the signal from the noise.
No literary quality can be attained by reading writers who possess it: be it, for example, persuasiveness, imagination, the gift of drawing comparisons, boldness or bitterness, brevity or grace, facility of expression or wit, unexpected contrasts, a laconic manner, naïveté, and the like. But if we are already gifted with these qualities — that is to say, if we possess them potentia — we can call them forth and bring them to consciousness; we can discern to what uses they are to be put; we can be strengthened in our inclination, nay, may have courage, to use them; we can judge by examples the effect of their application and so learn the correct use of them; and it is only after we have accomplished all this that we actu possess these qualities.
Reading consumes time. And if we equate time with money, it should not be wasted on bad books. In an argument that pulls to mind two filters for what to read, Schopenhauer writes:
It is the same in literature as in life. Wherever one goes one immediately comes upon the incorrigible mob of humanity. It exists everywhere in legions; crowding, soiling everything, like flies in summer. Hence the numberless bad books, those rank weeds of literature which extract nourishment from the corn and choke it.
They monopolise the time, money, and attention which really belong to good books and their noble aims; they are written merely with a view to making money or procuring places. They are not only useless, but they do positive harm. Nine-tenths of the whole of our present literature aims solely at taking a few shillings out of the public’s pocket, and to accomplish this, author, publisher, and reviewer have joined forces.
There is a more cunning and worse trick, albeit a profitable one. Littérateurs, hack-writers, and productive authors have succeeded, contrary to good taste and the true culture of the age, in bringing the world elegante into leading-strings, so that they have been taught to read a tempo and all the same thing — namely, the newest books order that they may have material for conversation in their social circles. … But what can be more miserable than the fate of a reading public of this kind, that feels always impelled to read the latest writings of extremely commonplace authors who write for money only, and therefore exist in numbers? And for the sake of this they merely know by name the works of the rare and superior writers, of all ages and countries.
Knowing what to read is important but so is its inversion— knowing what not to read.
This consists in not taking a book into one’s hand merely because it is interesting the great public at the time — such as political or religious pamphlets, novels, poetry, and the like, which make a noise and reach perhaps several editions in their first and last years of existence. Remember rather that the man who writes for fools always finds a large public: and only read for a limited and definite time exclusively the works of great minds, those who surpass other men of all times and countries, and whom the voice of fame points to as such. These alone really educate and instruct.
One can never read too little of bad, or too much of good books: bad books are intellectual poison; they destroy the mind.
In Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami makes the argument that “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” On this Schopenhauer said:
Oh, how like one commonplace mind is to another! How they are all fashioned in one form! How they all think alike under similar circumstances, and never differ! This is why their views are so personal and petty.
On the two types of literature, Schopenhauer comments:
There are at all times two literatures which, although scarcely known to each other, progress side by side — the one real, the other merely apparent. The former grows into literature that lasts. Pursued by people who live for science or poetry, it goes its way earnestly and quietly, but extremely slowly; and it produces in Europe scarcely a dozen works in a century, which, however, are permanent. The other literature is pursued by people who live on science or poetry; it goes at a gallop amid a great noise and shouting of those taking part, and brings yearly many thousand works into the market. But after a few years one asks, Where are they? where is their fame, which was so great formerly? This class of literature may be distinguished as fleeting, the other as permanent.
Commenting on why we learn little from what we read, he writes:
It would be a good thing to buy books if one could also buy the time to read them; but one usually confuses the purchase of books with the acquisition of their contents. To desire that a man should retain everything he has ever read, is the same as wishing him to retain in his stomach all that he has ever eaten. He has been bodily nourished on what he has eaten, and mentally on what he has read, and through them become what he is. As the body assimilates what is homogeneous to it, so will a man retain what interests him; in other words, what coincides with his system of thought or suits his ends. Every one has aims, but very few have anything approaching a system of thought. This is why such people do not take an objective interest in anything, and why they learn nothing from what they read: they remember nothing about it.
But reading good works is not enough. We must re-read important works immediately because it aids our understanding, a concept that Mortimer Adler echoes.
Any kind of important book should immediately be read twice, partly because one grasps the matter in its entirety the second time, and only really understands the beginning when the end is known; and partly because in reading it the second time one’s temper and mood are different, so that one gets another impression; it may be that one sees the matter in another light.
And the final part of the essay I want to draw your attention to speaks to how advancement happens in a flurry of false starts, and answers the age-old question of why so many luminaries — whether scientific or even artistic — fail to be recognized in their present age as they will later come to be seen by the world.
… imagine the progress of knowledge among mankind in the form of a planet’s course. The false paths the human race soon follows after any important progress has been made represent the epicycles in the Ptolemaic system; after passing through any one of them the planet is just where it was before it entered it. The great minds, however, which really bring the race further on its course, do not accompany it on the epicycles which it makes every time. This explains why posthumous fame is got at the expense of contemporary fame, and vice versâ.
If you think Schopenhauer is for you, pick up a copy of The Essential Schopenhauer: Key Selections from The World As Will and Representation and Other Writings.
Harper Lee, author of the much-loved novel To Kill a Mockingbird, wrote the following letter to Oprah Winfrey,
May 7, 2006
Do you remember when you learned to read, or like me, can you not even remember a time when you didn't know how? I must have learned from having been read to by my family. My sisters and brother, much older, read aloud to keep me from pestering them; my mother read me a story every day, usually a children's classic, and my father read from the four newspapers he got through every evening. Then, of course, it was Uncle Wiggily at bedtime.
So I arrived in the first grade, literate, with a curious cultural assimilation of American history, romance, the Rover Boys, Rapunzel, and The Mobile Press. Early signs of genius? Far from it. Reading was an accomplishment I shared with several local contemporaries. Why this endemic precocity? Because in my hometown, a remote village in the early 1930s, youngsters had little to do but read. A movie? Not often — movies weren't for small children. A park for games? Not a hope. We're talking unpaved streets here, and the Depression.
Books were scarce. There was nothing you could call a public library, we were a hundred miles away from a department store's books section, so we children began to circulate reading material among ourselves until each child had read another's entire stock. There were long dry spells broken by the new Christmas books, which started the rounds again.
As we grew older, we began to realize what our books were worth: Anne of Green Gables was worth two Bobbsey Twins; two Rover Boys were an even swap for two Tom Swifts. Aesthetic frissons ran a poor second to the thrills of acquisition. The goal, a full set of a series, was attained only once by an individual of exceptional greed — he swapped his sister's doll buggy.
We were privileged. There were children, mostly from rural areas, who had never looked into a book until they went to school. They had to be taught to read in the first grade, and we were impatient with them for having to catch up. We ignored them.
And it wasn't until we were grown, some of us, that we discovered what had befallen the children of our African-American servants. In some of their schools, pupils learned to read three-to-one — three children to one book, which was more than likely a cast-off primer from a white grammar school. We seldom saw them until, older, they came to work for us.
Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books. Instant information is not for me. I prefer to search library stacks because when I work to learn something, I remember it.
And, Oprah, can you imagine curling up in bed to read a computer? Weeping for Anna Karenina and being terrified by Hannibal Lecter, entering the heart of darkness with Mistah Kurtz, having Holden Caulfield ring you up — some things should happen on soft pages, not cold metal.
The village of my childhood is gone, with it most of the book collectors, including the dodgy one who swapped his complete set of Seckatary Hawkinses for a shotgun and kept it until it was retrieved by an irate parent.
Now we are three in number and live hundreds of miles away from each other. We still keep in touch by telephone conversations of recurrent theme: “What is your name again?” followed by “What are you reading?” We don't always remember.