Category: Reading

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.

Montaigne’s Rule for Reading: Pursue Pleasure

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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.'

How to Live: A Life of Montaigne

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.”

Still interested? Pick up Montaigne's Essays and Bakewell's biography for more.

The Best Way to Get Smarter? Learn to Read the Right Way.

There is a Buffett & Munger interview from 2013 that we reflect on frequently. They discuss how they’ve leaped ahead of their peers and competitors time and time again:

Munger: We’ve learned how to outsmart people who are clearly smarter [than we are].

Buffett: Temperament is more important than IQ. You need reasonable intelligence, but you absolutely have to have the right temperament. Otherwise, something will snap you.

Munger: The other big secret is that we’re good at lifelong learning. Warren is better in his 70s and 80s, in many ways, than he was when he was younger. If you keep learning all the time, you have a wonderful advantage.

When you couple this with the fact that Buffett & Munger estimate that they spend 80% of their day reading or thinking about what they’ve read, a philosophy is born:

The way to get better results in life is to learn constantly.
And the best way to learn is to read effectively, and read a lot.

The truth is, most styles of reading won’t deliver big results. In fact, most reading delivers few practical advantages; shallow reading is really another form of entertainment. That's totally fine, but much more is available to the dedicated few.

In a literal sense, we all know how to read. We learned in elementary school. But few of us take the time to improve our skills from the elementary, passive, cover-to-cover reading into a skill set that affords us real and lasting advantages.

Those advantages don't come from the type of reading that most of us employ most of the time. Real learning stems from a deliberate reading process and a set of principles that are simple, yet challenging.

Simple principles like: Some books demand to be read in their entirety. Most don’t. It’s your job to decide.

Deep, thorough reading doesn’t come naturally or easily to most people. It isn’t achieved by passively absorbing content while reading at max speed. But wisdom and deep understanding can be teased out when you know how to do it.

We can teach you the best of what we’ve learned about reading and how to mold that into an uncommon, sustaining advantage. And with that, we introduce our new course:

Farnam Street's Guide to How to Read a Book

How to Read a Book is a comprehensive online course that offers observations and strategies on everything from how to build strong reading habits to how to achieve novel insight on topics that already seem mastered by others. We believe this course has the ability to seriously impact any wisdom seeker’s life by enhancing your ability to learn.

Find out more information here:

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For those of you not interested, no problem. Thank you for listening. We'll be back to our regularly scheduled programming later this week.

Nick Hornby Reminds us Why We Love Books (Sometimes)

“All the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal…With each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not.”  –  Nick Hornby

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I'm not sure how I missed Nick Hornby's Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books when it was released a few years ago. If you don't know him, Hornby is the English author of novels like About a Boy, Fever Pitch, and High Fidelity. (All three became movies — Fever Pitch twice.) The book is a collection of ten years of Hornby's columns for the magazine The Believer. Once a month, Hornby would list all the books he bought and all of the books he managed to read that month, then he'd write about the ones he'd read. By my count, he read about 60 in the first year alone, so he was active.

Hornby is everything you want in someone writing about books: cheeky, wry humor; self-aware, non-nerdy. Ten Years in the Tub is a fun read precisely because it's a window into a book lover's soul. A funny book lover. And if you're reading Farnam Street, you're probably a book lover, or at least a liker.

Most heavy readers can, for instance, pretty well relate to Hornby's ranging between despair and cheeriness over the fact that he can't seem to remember what he reads:

I don't reread books very often; I'm too conscious of both my ignorance and my mortality. But when I tried to recall anything about [the book Stop-Time] other than its excellence, I failed. Maybe there was something about a peculiar stepfather? Or was that This Boy's Life? And I realized that, as this is true of just about every book I consumed between the ages of say, fifteen and forty, I haven't even read the books I think I've read. I can't tell you how depressing this is. What's the fucking point?

Then, just a few months later:

A couple of months ago, I became depressed by the realization that I'd forgotten pretty much everything I've ever read. I have, however, bounced back: I am now cheered by the realization that, if I've forgotten everything I've ever read, then I can read some of my favorite books again as if for the first time. I remember the punch line of The Sirens of Titan, but everything else was as fresh as a daisy…I'm beginning to see that our appetite for books is the same as our appetite for food, that our brain tells us when we need the literary equivalent of salads, or chocolate, or meat and potatoes. 

Hornby's pugilistic description of a struggle to read the Victorian novel No Name by Wilkie Collins is a classic; he heartily recommends it when he's about 200 pages through, and then quickly reverses course in the following month's column as he realizes the book is an absolute slog for the final 400 or so. This reminded me of my attempts to read Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky years ago. (Hornby seems to have competed the task, I gave up.)

We fought, Wilkie Collins and I. We fought bitterly, and with all our might, to a standstill, over a period of about three weeks, on trains and airplanes and by hotel swimming pools. Sometimes–usually late at night in bed–he could put me out cold with a single paragraph; every time I got through twenty or thirty pages, it felt to me as though I'd socked him good, but it took a lot out of me, and I had to retire to my corner to wipe the blood and sweat off my reading glasses. And still he kept coming back for more. Only in the past fifty-odd pages, after I'd landed several of these blows, did old Wilkie show any signs of buckling under the assault. He was pretty tough for a man of nearly one hundred and eighty. Hats off to him.

He then goes on to offer a refund to any readers who bought the book on his recommendation. (Like I said, cheeky.)

Hornby struggles, as we all do, with the long-versus-short book conundrum. It's hard to commit to the long ones, especially if you know reading it will take work, but at least they tend to stick because of the commitment needed. Not always so with the lighter reads. (The best solution to the long books, of course, is to commit with discipline to a digestible volume amount every day.)

The truth is, I've been reading more short books recently because I need to bump up the numbers in the Books Read column–six of this month's were really pretty scrawny…But the problem with short novels is that you can take liberties with them: you know you're going to get through them no matter what, so you never set aside the time or commitment that a bigger book requires. I fucked Old School up; I should have read it in a sitting, but I didn't, and I never gave it a chance to leave its mark. We are never allowed to forget that some books are badly written; we should remember that sometimes they're badly read too. 

For any parents out there, Hornby hits a familiar note in a passage about trying to get some reading done over a Christmas holiday…a seemingly modest goal…

So this last month was, as I believe you people say, a bust. I had high hopes for it, too; it was Christmas-time in England, and I was intending to do a little holiday comfort reading–David Copperfield and a couple of John Buchan novels, say, while sipping an eggnog and heroically ploughing my way through some enormous animal carcass or other. I've been a father for ten years now, and not once have I been able to sit down and read several hundred pages of Dickens during the Christmas holidays. Why I thought it might be possible this year, now that I have twice as many children, is probably a question best discussed with an analyst: somewhere along the line, I have failed to take something on board. (Hey, great idea: if you have kids, give your partner reading vouchers next Christmas. Each voucher entitles the bearer to two hours' reading-time while kids are awake. It might look like a cheapskate present, but parents will appreciate that it costs more in real terms than a Lamborghini.)

And finally, Hornby reminds us, the challenge and frustration of being a book-lover trying to cover a lot of ground is that the best laid plans often go awry(For those of us who don't get books sent to us for free, substitute an Amazon addiction, or, say, a Farnam Street membership as the culprits of having too many books coming down the funnel.)

Francis Wheen's book and Paul Collins' Not Even Wrong were advance reading copies that arrived through the post. I'm never going to complain about receiving free early copies of books, because quite clearly there's nothing to complain about, but it does introduce a rogue element into one's otherwise carefully plotted reading schedule. I had no idea I wanted to read Wheen's book until it arrived, and it was because of Wheen that I read Lewis, and then Not Even Wrong turned up and I wanted to read that too, and Buchan's Greenmantle got put to one side, I suspect forever. Being a reader is sort of like being president, except reading involves fewer state dinners, usually. You have the agenda you want to get through, but you get distracted by life events, e.g., books arriving in the mail/World War III, and you are temporarily deflected from your chosen path. 

So, here's our recommendation: First, learn How to Read a Book. Then pick up Hornby's charming book for some inspiration. As you watch Hornby flit from David Copperfield, to Moneyball, to literary biographies of obscure early 20th century novelists, you realize it's a book that reminds you why you love books. And it's a reminder that people who love books are in a certain kooky fraternity for life.

Just Twenty-Five Pages a Day

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 Gibbon's 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!