Category: Reading

General James Mattis: Arm Yourself With Books

How many situations will you face that have not already been experienced by someone else? Billions of people, thousands of years … probably not too many. It’s been done.

Luckily, sometimes those experiences are captured by history, and thus they become valuable tools for us to learn and prepare for similar situations. This is part of the central ethos of Farnam Street.

In an email that went viral in 2013, U.S. Marine General James Mattis (now the U.S. Secretary of Defense) candidly wrote about the value of this approach near the beginning of the Iraq War. Advising a colleague, he wrote:

Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.

Speaking specifically about situations he faced in the context of his military role, he said “We have been fighting on this planet for 5,000 years and we should take advantage of their experience. ‘Winging it’ and filling body bags as we sort out what works reminds us of the moral dictates and the cost of incompetence in our profession.”

Whatever country you are fighting a war in, someone has already fought there before. Someone has also explored it, mapped it, studied it, and done humanitarian work there. The hard work has already been done. All you have to do is read.

Maybe Napoleon shouldn’t have dismissed the Swedish accounts on the perils of invading Russia. He might have learned that the Russians didn’t follow the traditional norms of warfare. They weren’t going to surrender, or even admit to losing a battle, not with thousands of miles of country to withdraw into, scorching the earth along the way. And also that the Russian winter is really, really, harsh. 130 years later, with Napoleon’s experience to draw from, it’s staggering that Hitler went down the same path. He got the same results.

Books have a limitless amount to teach us if we're willing to pay attention.

You don’t need to be a military general to benefit from the fore-arming and forewarning that books can provide. Ask yourself, what body of knowledge would I benefit from having deep in my bones? Unless you're trying to make discoveries in fundamental physics or advanced technology, someone else has probably already gained the knowledge that you seek, and they likely have put it in a book to share with you.

Learning how to read for wisdom is simple, but not easy. The payoffs though, can be incredible.

The more you read, the more you will build your repertoire. Incrementally at first, the knowledge you add to your stockpile will grow over time as it combines with everything new you put in there. This is called compounding, and it works with knowledge much the same as it does with interest. Eventually, when faced with the new, challenging, and perplexing, you will be able to draw on this dynamic inner repository.

You will react, not as a neophyte, but as someone whose instincts have been honed by the experiences of others, rather than just your own. You will start to see that nothing is truly new, that awesome challenges can and have been overcome, and there are fundamental truths to how the world works.

So learn from others. Figure out where you are going and find out who has been there before. Knowledge comes from experience, but it doesn’t have to be your experience. Deep reading helps you to understand the world allowing you to conquer panic and maximize your chances of success.

If you're interested in military matters, you might even start with Mattis' reading list itself.

What We Can Learn From The Laboratory of Literature: Two Great Thinkers

We all have a feeling that literature is important. And yet many of us avoid the category altogether, feeling it's a waste of time to pick up literature when we can learn so much more from non-fiction. Literature, however, isn't a waste of time at all. In fact, literature saves us time.

Literature rapidly increases our learning. We learn through experiences, either our own or those of other people. Literature amplifies our exposure to a range of situations and events that would otherwise take decades for us to experience ourselves. For example, we can safely learn what it's like to get divorced, quit your job and fly to another country on a whim, have an affair, be in love, or kill someone.

Literature allows us to live other lives. We can be a Princess or a Prince. And we can explore what's really on our minds, which makes us feel less lonely. We can be good or evil. We can explore taboo sexual fantasies and more. Importantly, we can explore with an honesty and safety that is generally unavailable to us in our day-to-day life. We don't have to compromise. As Emerson wrote, “In the works of great writers we find our own neglected thoughts.”

Through literature, we develop emotional connections with characters and a shared community. We witness unparalleled kindness and terror. And though these experiences, we start to learn about ourselves and others. Reading the right passage can feel like the author knows us better than we know ourselves. It can put coherence to things we've only felt. If we are the territory, good literature can be the map.

Literature opens us up to a wider range of emotions. We learn to shift our perspective by putting ourselves in the shoes of others. We learn about who we are and who we want to be. And we experience the second order consequences of choices without having to live them ourselves.

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Umberto Eco in On Literature and Jean-Paul Sartre in What is Literature, expand on our sense community.

Literature allows for community. All literature encompasses at least a community of two: the reader and the writer. And each member plays a valuable role. As Sartre writes “each one trusts the other; each one counts on the other, demands of the other as much as he demands of himself.”

The community of great books becomes so large that it becomes part of our culture. When this happens, the work allows us to share experiences with others we've never met, making us better global citizens. Eco explains “certain characters have become somehow true for the collective imagination because over the course of centuries we have made emotional investments in them.”

Many generations of people have experienced Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice and Athos from The Three Musketeers. These stories have become part of our shared fabric, even for those who haven't read the books. We transcend time and place. These characters make us feel. Whether it's the joy that Elizabeth felt reading Dary's letters or the sadness that Athos felt because he could never come to terms with the complexity of Milady. And importantly we learn moral lessons. Who doesn't know ‘all for one and one for all.'

Eco suggests that literature has a lot to teach us about fate, or destiny, because no matter one’s desire, the story is already written and cannot be changed. As a reader we discover more than information, “it is the discovery that things happen, and have always happened, in a particular way.”

We all wish we could change stories. That we could sit down with a character and say ‘hey, aren’t you overthinking this retribution thing? Or, just be honest with her, she loves you’ and rewrite their endings. Eco thinks this is part of the power of literature, “against all our desires to change destiny, they make tangible the impossibility of changing it. And in so doing, no matter what story they are telling, they are also telling our own story, and that is why we read them and love them.” Through this emotional investment, we start to see the world through the eyes of others, with their limited information.

Literature further contributes to developing community by participating in the creation of language and identity. Eco writes that “without Dante there would have been no unified Italian language,” and then goes on to say “we might also think of what Greek civilization would have been like without Homer, German identity without Luther’s translation of the Bible, the Russian language without Pushkin, or Indian civilization without its foundation epics.”

The language used in works of literature that attract large communities enters the lexicon and becomes part of the identity of the collective. Even if you haven't read the original work, its impact is accessible to you. For example, how many of us know that a ‘foregone conclusion’ originated in Othello? Or that to call someone a ‘laughing stock’ came from The Merry Wives of Windsor? These phrases started in the works of Shakespeare, but the huge community of readers has taken these beyond their original pages and made them part of everyday speech to the extent that we no longer associate them with literature. They are just ‘how we speak’.

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Another value of literature is its link with freedom.

The freedom to express ideas that challenge people, to create language to capture aspects of the human condition, to bring to the forefront stories that go against the majority and which in doing so might make us uncomfortable. Sartre writes, “the freedom of writing implies the freedom of the citizen. One does not write for slaves. The art of prose is bound up with the only regime in which prose has meaning, democracy. When one is threatened, the other is too.”

Literature questions. It asks, what if? What if she does this? What if the world looks like that? It places characters in a certain time and space, imbues them with particular qualities and lets them go, showing us what can happen if we marry the wrong person, ignore our values, or survive a war. And thus implores us to question as well. Are we making the right choices?

This, of course, implies that we have choices, and thus Sartre’s link to democracy. To write and to read both involve freedom. Thus the value of literature is more than the stories, it is also the link it provides to others, the sense of community it can develop, and the social structures it supports.

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Still Curious? Here's a list of fiction that influences and inspires

Arthur Schopenhauer on the Dangers of Clickbait

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.

If you're looking for ways to filter out the noise consider Peter Kaufman's idea of the three buckets of knowledge and Nassim Taleb's lindy effect.

 

Mortimer Adler on Understanding What You Read

One of our goals when reading is to find and elucidate the key sentences in a book.

Independent of whether we agree with these key sentences, we first need to digest them — to capture the author's meaning. This is easier in non-fiction than fiction (in part, because typically non-fiction authors stick to the same definition throughout the book whereas fiction authors can change the meaning.)

Consider this beauty from Machiavelli's The Prince:

You must know there are two ways of contesting, the one by the law, the other by force; the first method is proper to men, the second to beasts; but because the first is frequently not sufficient, it is necessary to have recourse to the second. Therefore it is necessary for a prince to understand how to avail himself of the beast and the man.

Think for a second. What does it mean in your words?

In a long ago discussion between Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, authors of The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, they dissect this quote.

Van Doren: That's a terrible statement isn't it? It means that in the way of life, in which we all live, we cannot afford to be wholly human, we also have to be beastual.

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Most of the time, especially with expository books, it's easier to find the key sentences than to understand them.

We all read these sentences and feel as though we understand them. After all, we understand the words the author is using. Adler, however, encourages us to go further. To demonstrate understanding he recommends putting the sentence in your own words. After you've done this, he suggests you offer a concrete example of the meaning.

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Here is another example of this process playing out from Adler and Van Doren's conversation.

Adler: In the middle ages the great philosophers were very fond of saying, again and again, ‘nothing acts, except it is actual.' What does that mean to you? Say that in your own words now …

Van Doren: It means I can't be hurt by something that is only potential. Unless something actually is, it can't hurt me.

Adler: Unless something exists it can't hurt you. Show me you understand that by giving me a concrete example of something that can't hurt you because it isn't actual.

Van Doren: Well … a possible thunder storm can't wet me.

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We've just added some insightful excerpts from Adler and Van Doren's fascinating conversation as bonus content to How to Read a Book. You don't want to miss this.

Letters to a Prime Minister

Every two weeks, from 2007 to 2011, Yann Martel sent a book to then Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper. Each book was accompanied by a letter telling the PM why he might enjoy that particular selection. Martel, author of Life of Pi and the recently released The High Mountains of Portugal, strongly believes that “if you want to lead effectively, you must read widely”, and by widely, he means you must read literature.

My argument is that literature – as opposed to factual non-fiction – is an essential element to a deeply thinking, fully feeling mind in our complex twenty-first century world. A mind not informed by the thoughtful product that is the novel, the play, the poem, will be capable perhaps of administering the affairs of a people, maintaining the status quo, but not of truly leading that people. To lead effectively requires the capacity both to understand how things are and to dream how things might be, and nothing so displays that kind of understanding and dreaming as literature does.

Martel says that fiction has a more ‘universal resonance’ than non-fiction. Non-fiction has the advantage of being able to cover a specific topic in depth, but does not have the same broad appeal that fiction does.

A novel is about Life itself, whereas a history remains about a specific instance of Life. A great Russian novel…will always have a more universal resonance than a great history of Russia; you will think of the first as being about you on some level, whereas the second is about someone else.

Given the slightly disingenuous tone of Martel’s letters, it seems unlikely that he expected Harper – who never responded personally – to enter into a literary discourse with him. In his own words, Martel was using books as “political bullets and grenades”. He wanted to convey to the Prime Minister that the Arts are more than just entertainment; they are the core elements of civilization.

The value of 101 Letters to a Prime Minister lies in Martel’s insightful commentary on the books and their authors. Two things I am confident in saying: this compendium includes books you will not have heard of, and, your ‘to read’ list will grow after reading it.

Most of the works selected are under 200 pages – leaders are busy people – and it’s hard to imagine a more diverse selection of books. Along with the authors you’d expect to see – Shakespeare, Hemingway, Camus, Voltaire – are quite a few surprises. And not all of them are books Martel liked. He read Fictions by Borges twice and didn’t like it either time, but he encourages others to do the same.

By so doing one avoids the possible pitfall of autodidacts, who risk shaping their reading to suit their limitations, thereby increasing those limitations. The advantage of structured learning, at the various schools available at all ages of one’s life, is that one must measure one’s intellect against systems of ideas that have been developed over centuries. One’s mind is thus confronted with unsuspected new ideas.

Which is to say that one learns, one is shaped, as much by the books that one has liked as by those that one has disliked.

The books chosen by Martel include novels, plays, poetry, and philosophical works, but it’s not only classic literature. Ever heard of The Virgin Secretary’s Impossible Boss? Probably not. But you’ve likely heard of the brand. Over 6 billion Harlequin romance novels have been sold. Martel acknowledges that they’re poorly-written, silly, unrealistic and escapist, but says they provide readers with emotional satisfaction, “an escape from the harsh realities of life into a glamorous world populated by rich, beautiful people where a happy ending is guaranteed”.

Any book – trash to classic – makes us live the life of another person, injects us with the wisdom and folly of their years. When we’ve read the last page of a book, we know more, either in the form of raw knowledge – the name of a gun, perhaps – or in the form of greater understanding. The worth of these vicarious lives is not to be underestimated. There’s nothing sadder – or sometimes more dangerous – than the person who has lived only his or her single, narrow life, unenlightened by the experience, real or invented, of others.

It is this ability of Martel’s to see, and convey to the reader, the value of a very eclectic collection of reading material that makes his book such a pleasure to read.

On Children’s Literature

Martel sends Harper several picture books – The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, Imagine a Day, Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen – as well as some books for older children – The Brothers Lionheart, Read All About It! and Charlotte’s Web.

The fundamental role of children’s literature is to encourage children to use their imagination…If the expandable imagination of a child’s mind is not expanded, then it will shrink all the more, harden all the more, when that child grows up. The consequence is more dire than simply an adult with a dull, narrow mind. Such an adult is also less useful to society because he or she will be incapable of coming up with the new ideas and new solutions that society needs. A skill is a narrow focus of knowledge, a single card in a deck. Creativity is the hand that plays the cards.

Even with a seemingly straightforward picture book, there can be more than meets the eye.

Look at the illustrations of In the Night Kitchen. Who do the cooks with their narrow moustaches remind you of? What then might it mean when Mickey escapes the batter and floats away from the oven? In other words, I would suggest that you not just read these books (and aloud, even better), but imagine them.

On Graphic Novels

Two graphic novels, Maus and Persepolis, are among the books chosen. Of the Pulitzer-prize winning Maus, Martel says:

Maus is a masterpiece. Spiegelman tells his story, or, more accurately, the story of his mother and father, in a bold and radical way. It’s not just that he takes the graphic form, thought perhaps by some to be a medium only for children, to new artistic heights by taking on such a momentous topic as exterminationist genocide. It’s more than that. It’s how he tells the story. You will see. The narrative agility and ease of it. And how the frames speak large. Some, small though they are, and in black and white, have an impact that one would think possible only with large paintings or shots from a movie.

[…]

It’s brilliant. It so takes you in, it so rips you apart. From there you must make your own tricky way back again to what it means to be human.

On Erotica

Not something you might expect a Man Booker prize-winning author to send to a Prime Minister, but Martel gets to the heart of what erotica offers in describing Anaïs Nin’s Artists and Models:

Clothes are the commonest trappings of vanity. When we are naked, we are honest. That is the essential quality of these lustful stories of Nin, embellished or wholly invented though they may be: their honesty. They say: this is part of who we are – deny it, and you are denying yourself.

On Hindu Scripture

Read the Bhagavad Gita in a moment of stillness and with an open heart, and it will change you. It is a majestic text, elevated and elevating. Like Arjuna, you will emerge from this dialogue with Krishna wiser and more serene, ready for action but filled with inner peace and loving-kindness.

Om shanti (peace be with you), as they say in India.

On Kafka (Metamorphosis)

Kafka introduced to our age a feeling that hasn’t left us yet: angst. …. The dysfunctional side of the twentieth century, the dread that comes from mindless work, from constant, grinding, petty regulation, the dread that comes from the greyness of urban, capitalist existence, where each one of us is no more than a lonely cog in a machine, this was what Kafka revealed. Are we done with these concerns? Have we worked our way out of anxiety, isolation and alienation? Alas, I think not. Kafka still speaks to us.

On Tolstoy (The Death of Ivan Ilyich; The Kreutzer Sonata)

Tolstoy was unregulated. He lived in a manner unbridled and unblinkered. He took it all in. He was supremely complex. And so there was much of life in his long life, life good and bad, wise and unwise, happy and unhappy. Thus the interest of his writings, because of their extraordinary existential breadth. If the earth could gather itself up, could bring together everything upon it, all men, women and children, every plant and animal, every mountain and valley, every plain and ocean, and twist itself into a fine point, and at that fine point grasp a pen, and with that pen begin to write, it would write like Tolstoy.

On Austen (The Watsons; Jane Austen: A Life)

So though limited by class and by sex, Jane Austen was able to transcend these limitations. Her novels are marvels of wit and perspicacity, and in them she examined her society with such fresh and engaging realism that the English novel was durably changed.

On Reading the Hard Stuff

The final work Martel sends to Harper is In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. At 4,347 pages, it breaks the ‘under 200 pages’ rule by quite a wide margin, and is also the only book Martel hadn’t read before sending. He sends it as a commitment to read it himself one day.

So why did I never take on Proust’s masterpiece? I suppose for the same reason that many books are left unread, a mixture of fear and slothfulness, fear that I wouldn’t understand the work and unwillingness to spend so much intellectual energy reading all those pages. But as you and I both know, fear and slothfulness lead nowhere. Great achievements only come through courage and hard work.

101 Letters to a Prime Minister is a worthwhile addition to the bibliophile’s bookshelf.

3 Famous Writers on the Relationship Between Reading and Writing

During the Q&A for How to Read a Book, someone asked whether reading a lot makes us better writers. The short answer is yes. Reading and writing are two sides of the same coin. As Anne Lamott points out, the converse is also true – writing makes you a better reader.

One reads with a deeper appreciation and concentration, knowing now how hard writing is, especially how hard it is to make it look effortless. You begin to read with a writer’s eyes. You focus in a new way. You study how someone portrays his or her version of things in a way that is new and bold and original.

Speaking with the wisdom of experience, Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway and David Foster Wallace share their thoughts on the relationship between reading and writing.

Why to Read

In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King explains why reading is so important for those who want to write.

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around those two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.

I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read. It’s what I do at night, kicked back in my blue chair. Similarly, I don’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories. Yet there is a learning process going on.

The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one’s papers and identification pretty much in order. Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness. It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor.

What to Read

Schopenhauer said “one can never read too little of bad, or too much of good books: bad books are intellectual poison; they destroy the mind.”

While that may be true as a general rule, King talks about the role badly-written books played in teaching him to write.

Asteroid Miners (which wasn’t the title, but that’s close enough) was an important book in my life as a reader. Almost everyone can remember losing his or her virginity, and most writers can remember the first book he/she put down thinking: I can do better than this. Hell, I am doing better than this! What could be more encouraging to the struggling writer than to realize his/her work is unquestionably better than that of someone who actually got paid for his/her stuff?

One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose – one novel like Asteroid Miners (or Valley of the DollsFlowers in the Attic, and The Bridges of Madison County, to name just a few) is worth a semester at a good writing school, even with the superstar guest lectures thrown in.

Good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of beautiful characters, and truth-telling. A novel like The Grapes of Wrath may fill a new writer with feelings of despair and good old-fashioned jealousy – “I’ll never be able to write anything that good, not if I live to be a thousand” – but such feelings can also serve as a spur, goading the writer to work harder and aim higher. Being swept away by a combination of great story and great writing – of being flattened, in fact – is part of every writer’s necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.

Who to Read

In an article Hemingway wrote for Esquire in 1935, he recounts the advice he gave an aspiring writer known as Maestro, Mice for short. This entertaining excerpt appears in Hemingway on Writing.

Mice: What books should a writer have to read?

Y.C. [Your Correspondent]: He should have read everything so that he knows what he has to beat.

Mice: He canʼt read everything.

Y.C.: I donʼt say what he can. I say what he should. Of course he canʼt.

Mice: Well what books are necessary?

Y.C.: He should have read War and Peace and Anna Karenina, by Tolstoi, Midshipman Easy, Frank Mildamay and Peter Simple by Captain Marryat, Madame Bovary and LʼEducation Sentimentale by Flaubert, Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann, Joyceʼs DublinersPortrait of the Artist and UlyssesTom Jones and Joseph Andrews by Fielding, Le Rouge et le Noire and La Chartreuse de Parme by Stendhal, The Brothers Karamazov and any two other Dostoevskis, Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, The Open Boat and The Blue Hotel by Stephen Crane, Hail and Farewell by George Moore, Yeats Autobiographies, all the good De Maupassant, all the good Kipling, all of TurgenevFar Away and Long Ago by W.H. Hudson, Henry Jamesʼ short stories, especially Madame de Mauves and The Turn of the Screw, The Portrait of a Lady, The American-

Mice: I canʼt write them down that fast. How many more are there?

Y.C.: Iʼll give you the rest another day. There are about three times that many.

Mice: Should a writer have read all of those?

Y.C.: All of those and plenty more. Otherwise he doesnʼt know what he has to beat.

Mice: What do you mean “has to beat”?

Y.C.: Listen. There is no use writing anything that has been written before unless you can beat it. What a writer in our time has to do is write what hasnʼt been written before or beat dead men at what they have done. The only way he can tell how he is going is to compete with dead men. Most live writers do not exist. Their fame is created by critics who always need a genius of the season, someone they understand completely and feel safe in praising, but when these fabricated geniuses are dead they will not exist. The only people for a serious writer to compete with are the dead that he knows are good. It is like a miler running against the clock rather than simply trying to beat whoever is in the race with him. Unless he runs against time he will never know what he is capable of attaining.

Mice: But reading all the good writers might discourage you.

Y.C.: Then you ought to be discouraged.

If you've always wanted to read the classics but keep putting it off, try breaking the task into manageable chunks.

When & Where to Read

Stephen King suggests aspiring writers read wherever and whenever possible.

Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in. The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows. Waiting rooms were made for books – of course! But so are theater lobbies before the show, long and boring checkout lines, and everyone’s favorite, the john. You can even read while you’re driving, thanks to the audiobook revolution. Of the books I read each year, anywhere from six to a dozen are on tape. As for all the wonderful radio you will be missing, come on – how many times can you listen to Deep Purple sing “Highway Star”?

Whether you read in “small sips” or curled up by the fire with a glass of wine, the point is that you need to find the time to read if you want to be a writer.

You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but “didn’t have time to read,” I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner.  Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.

How to Read

Should aspiring writers use a different technique when reading? David Foster Wallace suggests a variation on the Feynman technique to teach yourself to write better. Learning to write, he says, requires “learning to pay attention in different ways”.

Not just reading a lot, but paying attention to the way the sentences are put together, the clauses are joined, the way the sentences go to make up a paragraph. Exercises as boneheaded as you take a book you really like, you read a page of it three, four times, put it down, and then try to imitate it word for word so that you can feel your own muscles trying to achieve some of the effects that the page of text you like did. If you’re like me, it will be in your failure to be able to duplicate it that you’ll actually learn what’s going on.

It sounds really, really stupid, but in fact, you can read a page of text, right? And “Oh, that was pretty good…” but you don’t get any sense of the infinity of choices that were made in that text until you start trying to reproduce them.

Still curious? Check out Stephen King’s long reading list or his top 10 list, Hemingway’s advice on writing and David Foster Wallace on argumentative writing and non-fiction.