Category: Reading

Arthur Schopenhauer: On Reading and Books

One of the most timeless and beautiful meditations on reading comes from the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860).

Schopenhauer: On Reading and Books

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?

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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.

Schopenhauer: When we read, another person thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental process.

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.

One can never read too little of bad, or too much of good books: bad books are intellectual poison; they destroy the mind.

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.

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.

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.

Reading a Book is a Conversation Between You and the Author

reading a book

While I've posted this before as part of my series on reading a book, I wanted to draw your attention to this beautiful excerpt from Mortimer Adler's How To Read A Book:

When you buy a book, you establish a property right in it, just as you do in clothes or furniture when you buy and pay for them. But the act of purchase is actually only the prelude to possession in the case of a book. Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it— which comes to the same thing— is by writing in it.

Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake— not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author.

Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book. But understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher. He even has to be willing to argue with the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.

The Necessity of Marginalia in the Age of the Ebook

Marginalia
Francis Bacon once remarked, “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”

Reading and writing often go hand in hand. Reading is not a passive skill but rather an active one.

One of the ways we chew and digest what we're reading is to comment on something someone else has written. We do this through Marginalia — the broken fragments of thought that appear scribbled in the margins of books. These fragments help us connect ideas, translate jargon, and spur critical thinking. (One notable downside though, giving away books becomes harder because often these fragments are intimate arrows into my thinking.)

In the world of ebooks, the future of marginalia and reading looks different. With electronic reading devices, the ease of inserting these thought fragments has diminished. I have Kindle and while I'm trying to use it more, there are issues. By the time I've highlighted a section, clicked on make a note, and labored intensively at the keyboard, I've often lost the very thought I was trying to capture. (Ebooks, however, make certain things easier, like searching.)

This excerpt from How to Read a Book, written in the 40s, captures the necessity of marginalia to reading.

When you buy a book, you establish a property right in it, just as you do in clothes or furniture when you buy and pay for them. But the act of purchase is actually only the prelude to possession in the case of a book. Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it— which comes to the same thing— is by writing in it.

Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake— not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active , is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author.

Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book. But understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher. He even has to be willing to argue with the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.

Follow your curiosity to the pleasures of reading in an age of distraction, how to read a book, and a process for taking notes while reading.

A System for Remembering What You Read

Last year, I read 161 books cover-to-cover. And that doesn't include the ones that I started to read and put down. In the process, I learned a lot about what works and what doesn't work. People often ask me how I remember what I read.

I have a system that I use for non-fiction books that enables me to remember quite a bit. And when I can't remember something, I generally know where to look to find the answers.

Here are some of the tips that work for me:

  • Learn How to Read a Book.
  • Start with the index, the table of contents, and the preface. This will give you a good sense of the book.
  • Be OK with deciding that now is not the time to read the book.
  • Read one book at a time.
  • Put it down if you lose interest.
  • Mark up the book while reading it. Questions. Thoughts. And, more important, connections to other ideas.
  • At the end of each chapter, without looking back, write some notes on the main points/arguments/take-aways. Then look back through the chapter and write down anything you missed.
  • Specifically note anything that was in the chapter that you can apply somewhere else.
  • When you're done with the book, take out a blank sheet of paper and explain the core ideas or arguments of the book to yourself. Where you have problems, go back and review your notes. This is the Feynman technique.
  • Put the book down for a week.
  • Pick the book back up, reread all of your notes/highlights/marginalia/etc. Time is a good filter — what's still important? Note this on the inside of the cover with a reference to the page number.
  • Put any notes that you want to keep in your commonplace book.

One thing that most people don't appreciate enough is that what you read makes a huge difference in how well you remember things.

We fail to remember a lot of the stuff we read because it's not building on any existing knowledge. We're often trying to learn complex things (that change rapidly) without understanding the basic things (which change slowly or not at all). Or, worse still, we're uncritically letting other people do the thinking for us. This is the adult equivalent of regurgitating the definition of a boldface word in our high school textbook.

Both of these habits lead to the illusion of knowledge and to overconfidence.

I'd argue that a better approach is to build a latticework of mental models. That is, acquire core multi-disciplinary knowledge and use that as your foundation. This is the best investment because this stuff doesn't change, or if it does, it changes really slowly. This knowledge becomes your foundation. This is what you build on. So when you read and connect things to the core knowledge, not only do you have a better idea of how things fit together, but you also strengthen those connections in your head.

If you're looking to acquire worldly wisdom, time is your best filter. It makes sense to focus on learning the core ideas over multiple disciplines. These remain constant. And when you have a solid foundation, it's easier to build upon because you connect what you're learning to that (now very solid) foundation.

Teddy Roosevelt’s 10 Rules For Reading

Teddy Roosevelt’s 10 Rules For Reading
“A book must be interesting to the particular reader at that particular time.”

Theodore Roosevelt was perhaps the most well-read president. On a normal day he'd read a book before breakfast with another two later in the day. This puts my reading habits to shame. Over his life, he read thousands of books.

Here is an awesome find from bookriot:

1. “The room for choice is so limitless that to my mind it seems absurd to try to make catalogues which shall be supposed to appeal to all the best thinkers. This is why I have no sympathy whatever with writing lists of the One Hundred Best Books, or the Five-Foot Library [a reference to the Harvard Classics]. It is all right for a man to amuse himself by composing a list of a hundred very good books… But there is no such thing as a hundred books that are best for all men, or for the majority of men, or for one man at all times.”

2. “A book must be interesting to the particular reader at that particular time.”

3. “Personally, the books by which I have profited infinitely more than by any others have been those in which profit was a by-product of the pleasure; that is, I read them because I enjoyed them, because I liked reading them, and the profit came in as part of the enjoyment.”

4. “The reader, the booklover, must meet his own needs without paying too much attention to what his neighbors say those needs should be.”

5. “He must not hypocritically pretend to like what he does not like.”

6. “Books are almost as individual as friends. There is no earthly use in laying down general laws about them. Some meet the needs of one person, and some of another; and each person should beware of the booklover’s besetting sin, of what Mr. Edgar Allan Poe calls ‘the mad pride of intellectuality,’ taking the shape of arrogant pity for the man who does not like the same kind of books.”

7. “Now and then I am asked as to ‘what books a statesman should read,’ and my answer is, poetry and novels – including short stories under the head of novels.”

8. ”Ours is in no sense a collector’s library. Each book was procured because some one of the family wished to read it. We could never afford to take overmuch thought for the outsides of books; we were too much interested in their insides.”

9. “[We] all need more than anything else to know human nature, to know the needs of the human soul; and they will find this nature and these needs set forth as nowhere else by the great imaginative writers, whether of prose or of poetry.”

10. “Books are all very well in their way, and we love them at Sagamore Hill; but children are better than books.”

Stephen King On Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey, Lovecraft & More

Stephen King speaks on a number of topics and takes questions from students, faculty and others in a “Master's Class” at UMass Lowell.

I sometimes think that people don't challenge themselves very hard to read stuff that's a little bit more textured or nuanced. … And then sometimes I think that the people (who) are defenders of what they call literature, feel like a book has to be a ignored if it reaches more than 750 readers.