Category: Reading

On Reading and Books

On Reading and Books — an essay by German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), who influenced some of the most prominent minds in the world.

Ignorance is degrading only when it is found in company with riches. Want and penury restrain the poor man; his employment takes the place of knowledge and occupies his thoughts: while rich men who are ignorant live for their pleasure only, and resemble a beast; as may be seen daily. They are to be reproached also for not having used wealth and leisure for that which lends them their greatest value.

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. … 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.

His argument is more nuanced than it might appear. For example, he offers:

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

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.

And he indirectly argues for the ‘Great books’ …

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.

And my favorite part of the essay:

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.

And the best books, should be read twice:

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.


Still curious? Pick up a copy of Schopenhauer’s Essays and Aphorisms.

C.S. Lewis on Reading Old Books

“Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books.”

— C.S. Lewis

What did Steve Jobs Read?

“Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you.”

— Steve Jobs

I’ve always wondered just what influenced Steve Jobs thinking?

Walter Isaacson‘s biography of Steve Jobs provides an unprecedented look at not only Steve Jobs life but the books which influenced him.

For such a success, there is oddly only one business book on the list,  The Innovator’s Dilemma. According to Isaacson, this book “deeply influenced” Jobs.

Reminiscing on his teen years, Jobs recalled “I started to listen to music a whole lot, and I started to read more outside of just science and technology — Shakespeare, Plato. I loved King Lear“.

Moby-Dick and Dylan Thomas‘ poetry were among Jobs’ favorites as well.

During his freshman year at Reed, Jobs devoured books such as Shunryu Suzuki’s “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,” Chogyam Trungpa’s “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism” and Paramahansa Yogananda’s “Autobiography of a Yogi,” a book Jobs would come back to and re-read many times during his life.

Isaacson writes:

Jobs found himself deeply influenced by a variety of books on spirituality and enlightenment, most notably Be Here Now, a guide to meditation and the wonders of psychedelic drugs by Baba Ram Dass, born Richard Alpert.

“It was profound,” Jobs said. “It transformed me and many of my friends.”

The one book that Steve Jobs had downloaded on his iPad was Autobiography of a Yogi, “the guide to meditation and spirituality that he had first read as a teenager,” Isaacson writes, “then re-read in India and had read once a year ever since.”

Now compare this to what Bill Gates reads for fun.


Reading Fiction Stretches Our Imaginations

Aristotle claimed that poetry—at the time, he meant the epics of Homer and other tragedies, which we now call fiction—was better than history. He argued that fiction tells us what is possible, whereas history tells us only what has happened.

Fiction stretches our imaginations and, in doing so, opens a window into ourselves and others.

To test this, Keith Oatley, professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, and some colleagues ran a few studies. While the results are preliminary, they are nonetheless interesting.

In one study, Oatley asked people to choose the emotion expressed in a photograph of a person’s eyes (intended to be a measure of empathy). Readers of fiction scored higher.

Professor Raymond Mar wanted to further test that empathy is a product of reading fiction (as opposed to empathetic people being drawn to fiction). He randomly divided two groups of subjects, one of which read a short work of fiction and the other a piece of non-fiction. The subjects were then asked to demonstrate “social reasoning.” Again, the fiction readers performed better.

Our brains interpret fiction differently. In another study, Oatley rewrote a piece of fiction as a piece of non-fiction. Basically, he took a story and made it into the transcript of a trial. Subjects who read the fiction version felt more emotion. The more emotion they felt, the more they changed. Oatley speculates the personality shifts may be produced by the reader entering into the fictional character’s mind. That is, we identify with what we’re reading.

Two researchers, Gabriel and Young, in the journal of Psychological Science, found that participants who read Harry Potter self-identify as wizards. Participants, on the other hand, reading Twilight self-identify as vampires.

We become part of the story. Surprisingly, it seems that belonging to these fictional communities provided the same life satisfaction people get from affiliations with real-life groups.

Gabriel and Young write:

The current research suggests that books give readers more than an opportunity to tune out and submerge themselves in fantasy worlds. Books provide the opportunity for social connection and the blissful calm that comes from becoming a part of something larger than oneself for a precious, fleeting moment.”

Oatley writes, “through a series of studies, we have discovered that fiction at its best isn’t just enjoyable. It measurably enhances our abilities to empathize with other people and connect with something larger than ourselves.”

In explaining the role of fiction in our lives, Oatley uses the metaphor of a flight simulator. A flight simulator allows pilots-in-training to safely and quickly learn how to deal with all sorts of problems that might happen in the air. Fiction, Oatley argues, “allows us to experience emotions in a safe place, training us to understand ourselves and others.”

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If you want to know more, check out Lisa Zunshine’s her 2006 Why We Read Fiction. Zunshine argues that fiction engages our theory-of-mind faculties and gives us practice in working out what characters are thinking and feeling.

(1) Guardian
(2) Globe and Mail
(3) Greater Good