Tag: Reading

George Washington’s Practical Self-Education

Our first President and Commander-in-Chief, George Washington, is not known as an intellectual, the way Ben Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and some of his other Revolutionary counterparts were. Washington had little formal education — he was not a university man and he did not occupy the intellectual circles when was young. He didn’t hope to make any contribution to political philosophy or the scientific understanding.

Washington grew up in Virginia into a landowning family, and his education didn’t continue beyond the equivalent of elementary school. He developed a trade — surveying — and would eventually inherit his family’s land and become a farmer and plantation owner. Washington couldn’t speak or read any language but English, living in a time when it was considered necessary and desirable to know French and Latin, at a minimum. (Ben Franklin learned English, Italian, Spanish, Latin, French, and German.) Unlike others we’ve written about before, Washington wasn’t very bookish.

“Washington was a practical reader. He clearly valued useful knowledge that made many of his tasks easier. He was and still is the quintessential American success story because he applied his mind to achieving success. He was relentless in pursuing his goals, and his reading is an applied demonstration of it.”

— Adrienne Harrison

And yet, this poorly educated man with seemingly little interest in literature, classics, or reading at all, became one of the seminal leaders in American history, and as Adrienne Harrison details in her book A Powerful Mind, he did it in large part by reading. Even a man with little interest in high-brow intellect, a man with very little time to spare, felt that sitting on his ass with a book was a useful thing indeed. He was a lifelong learner.

Practical Self-Education

As judged by the library he left behind, his diaries, and the investigations into his life, Washington did not carry much interest in theoretical or classical reading or learning. It seems unlikely that he read for pleasure. But Washington used reading as a means to an end — he wanted to know how to farm better, how to lead an army, how to lead a country, how to conduct himself civilly. There wasn’t any other way but to read and combine it with his direct experience.

Says Harrison in her book:

Washington was a practical reader … While the purpose of this book is not to remake Washington’s image into a sort of closeted scholar, it does argue that reading was a key component behind Washington’s success. The real contribution that this volume makes is that it takes one step closer to understanding how Washington’s mind worked. While his self-directed reading was not anywhere near that of Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams, Washington outshone them all by combining the knowledge he gained from his reading with his natural talent for leadership into a masterful performance.

Washington’s lack of education and culture certainly bothered him as a youngster. He was ambitious — he wanted to serve as a high-level British military officer and operate in government. He wanted to be a somebody. But he knew his formal education was going to be lacking, and he knew it wouldn’t all happen by accident. So he set out to do some of the hard work.

In a story that eventually became well-known, Washington first spent time as a teenager copying over a French manual for conducting yourself in high circles:

As his younger brothers Samuel and John Augustine still lay sleeping nearby and the first of the sun’s rays stretched through the neatly curtained windows and across the small table, the future father of his country busily copied word for word a translation of an old guidebook for princely behavior that a French Jesuit priest wrote called The Rules of Civility. 

Such a project was no small undertaking for the boy, but little by little he was determined to press on to the end; so he kept scratching at the paper with his quill, careful to keep his ink-stained fingers off the paper. By the time he was finished, young Washington’s manuscript consisted of 110 rules for how to properly conduct himself as a respectable member of society. He took pride in his work, for he would rely on these maxims to guide him throughout a long career in the public light.

This tells you a lot of Washington: He was a climber, he had discipline, and he could apply himself when needed. Even in the 18th century, not too many wealthy southern teenagers would have taken on that kind of task.

Learning the rules of civilized social behavior in this way, Washington started a pattern he’d carry on his entire life: Gaining knowledge from books that he couldn’t get through experience, or that he needed before he had the right experience. He did it again when he was put in charge of the Virginia Regiment, the first dedicated military unit in the colonies.

Washington hoped that leading this ragtag group of frontier soldiers against the French and the Natives would eventually lead to his becoming a full British military officer (which never happened). And although he was not actually part of the British military, as with his study of the Rules of Civility Washington took it upon himself to read the most influential book in British military circles, and instructed his officers to study it with him:

With specific regard to training, Washington was responsible for training not only raw recruits but also officers. Washington pushed his officers to study, particularly the latest in British military texts such as Humphrey Bland’s A Treatise on Military Discipline. Washington wrote that “having no opportunity to improve from example, let us read”; for he recognized that it was not possible for an ambitious officer to obtain the requisite expertise “without application, nor any merit or applause to be achieved without certain knowledge thereof.”

Bland’s Treatise was the fundamental textbook for all British officers. Known throughout the army as “the bible,” the 360-page manual spelled out everything a new officer needed to know about how to form and operate a regiment both in garrison and in the field. Bland outlined what an officer’s duties were and what officers could reasonably expect from their subordinates.

Studying for Success

Washington didn’t stop his self education upon completion of his duties as a frontier officer — he just changed course:

He therefore turned his attention to doing his duty to his country, Virginia, and shifted his focus to becoming a leader in that provincial society, which did actually appreciate his achievements…Washington abandoned his study of the military arts that he had begun some four years earlier, for that reading no longer served a practical purpose for him. He instead devoted his energies in the coming years to increasing his wealth and status in Virginia society.

[…]

To successfully mix in the best social circles, Washington had to learn more about the science of agriculture, history, politics, and religion, for he had to balance being a planter, a member of the House of Burgesses, and a parish vestryman. After he returned to Mount Vernon and began assembling a library, those subjects that had the practical purpose of advancing his social stature dominated his burgeoning collection.

Washington took it upon himself to delve deeply into agriculture, acquiring scores of books on how to improve the productivity of his farms and manage the soil more effectively. He read religious tracts to understand the mood of the people around him, and history books to understand the history of English people.

It’s important to note what Washington didn’t do. He didn’t try to achieve a classical education on his own. Some of his contemporaries were educated in England and became legal scholars, classicists, and composers of belles lettres. They wanted the mind of a European intellectual.

Washington didn’t do this — he wanted to learn things he could use, and given a limited amount of time, focused his attention where it was most profitable to him. (An opportunity cost problem which we hit on in our How to Read a Book course earlier this year.)

Having made his mental break with his Englishness after Lord Loudon harshly dealt him a very personal affront, Washington in that key moment was forced to confront his academic shortcomings. This realization, when coupled with his extreme sensitivity to criticism, drove Washington intellectually inward and toward the subjects that he felt most comfortable with and that, more important, could meet his immediate needs at the time. He was fortunate to have already made his public reputation in Virginia based on his natural propensities for physical bravery and on his leadership experience. Learning to read Latin or becoming an amateur scientist would not sustain that hard-won reputation in the planter-dominated high society; earning money and being a dedicated public servant would. Consequently, Washington focused his reading and intellectual pursuits accordingly, and reading remained an intensely private activity. For example, when in residence at Mount Vernon, he spent on average two hours in the morning and all afternoon alone in his library.

Washington would keep these habits the rest of his life, although during the Revolution and his presidency, he had a lot less time to devote to reading than at Mount Vernon. But he still did it, even in the midst of the great upheaval he led against the British:

With these military treatises and drill manuals that he acquired during the first two years of the Revolution, we see Washington applying the same diligent study method he had used previously with Duhamel’s Practical Treatise of Husbandry when he sought to make his plantations profitable. In other words, he read these military books for the sake of immediate practical problem solving. There is nothing philosophical or reflective about them. They are tactical field manuals, not massive theoretical tomes on the art of command as it evolved over the centuries.

This is not to recommend avoiding such reflective, theoretical tomes, if such reading interests you. But Washington does provide a good example to those who don’t take an inherent pleasure in deep reflection. The process of reading can be intensely practical as well as enjoyable for its own sake. Never think that reading is a mere luxury. Even the busiest man of the 18th century, who did not enjoy reading as an end itself, felt a duty to allocate his time to the written word. It was simply that important.

***

Still Interested? Check out the rest of Adrienne Harrison’s A Powerful Mind, or for a better and more thorough treatment, try the wonderful biography written by Ron Chernow, now the standard and most modern bio of the fascinating GW.

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.

What Can We Learn From the Prolific Mr. Asimov?

To learn is to broaden, to experience more, to snatch new aspects of life for yourself. To refuse to learn or to be relieved at not having to learn is to commit a form of suicide; in the long run, a more meaningful type of suicide than the mere ending of physical life. 

Knowledge is not only power; it is happiness, and being taught is the intellectual analog of being loved.

— Isaac Asimov, Yours, Isaac Asimov: A Life in Letters

 

isaac-asimov
Fans estimate that the erudite polymath Isaac Asimov authored nearly 500 full-length books during his life. Even if some that “don’t count” are removed from the list — anthologies he edited, short science books he wrote for young people and so on — Asimov’s output still reaches into the many hundreds of titles.  Starting with a spate of science-fiction novels in the 1950s, including the now-classic Foundation series, Asimov’s writing eventually ranged into non-fiction with works of popular science, Big History, and even annotated guides to classic novels like Paradise Lost and Gulliver’s Travels.

Among his works were a 1,200 page Guide to the Bible; he also wrote books on Greece, Rome, Egypt, and the Middle East; he wrote a wonderful Guide to Shakespeare and a comprehensive Chronology of the World; he wrote books on Carbon, Nitrogen, Photosynthesis, The Moon, The Sun, and the Human Body, along with many more scientific topics. He coined the term “robotics” and his stories led to modern movies like I, Robot and Bicentennial Man. He wrote one of the most popular stories of all time: The Last Question. He even wrote a few joke books and a book of limericks.

His Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science, a 500,000 word epic written in a mad dash of eight months, was nominated for a National Book Award in 1961, losing only to William Shirer’s bestselling history of Nazi Germany, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

His science-fiction books continue to sell to this day and are considered foundational works of the genre. He won more than a dozen book awards. His science and history books were considered some of the best published for lay audiences — the only real complaint we can make is that a few of them are outdated now. (We’ll give Asimov a pass for not updating them, since he’s been dead for almost 25 years.)

In his free time, he was reputed to have written over 90,000 letters while keeping a monthly column in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for 33 years between 1958 and 1991. Between the Magazine and numerous other outlets, Asimov compiled somewhere near 1,600 essays throughout his life.

In other words, the man was a writer through and through, leading to a question that begs to be asked:

What can we mortals learn from the Prolific Mr. Asimov?

Make the Time — No Excuses

Many people complain that they don’t have time for their passions because of the unavoidable duties which suck up every free moment: Well, Asimov had duties too, but he got his writing career started anyway. From 1939 until 1958, Asimov doubled as a professor of biochemistry at Boston University, during which he completed 28 novels and a list of short stories long enough to fill most writers’ entire career. He simply made the time to write.

In a posthumously published memoir, Asimov reflects on the “candy store” schedule implanted on him by his father, who’d worked long hours running a convenience store in New York after emigrating from Russia. As Asimov became a professional writer, he kept the heroic schedule for himself:

I wake at five in the morning. I get to work as early as I can. I work as long as I can. I do this every day of the week, including holidays. I don’t take vacations voluntarily and I try to do my work even when I’m on vacation. (And even when I’m in the hospital.)

In other words, I am still and forever in the candy store. Of course, I’m not waiting on customers; I’m not taking money and making change; I’m not forced to be polite to everyone who comes in (in actual fact, I was never good at that). I am, instead, doing things I very much want to do — but the schedule is there; the schedule that was ground into me; the schedule you would think I would have rebelled against once I had the chance.

Know your Spots, and Stick to those Spots 

“I’m no genius, but I’m smart in spots, and I stay around those spots.”
—Thomas Watson, Sr., Founder of IBM

Even though he’d been writing in his spare time as a professor, Asimov was not doing any academic research, which did not go unnoticed by his superiors at Boston University. Asimov’s success as an author combined with his dedication to his craft had forced him into a decision: Be an academic or be a popular writer. The decision needed no fretting — he was making so much money and such a large impact as a writer, he knew he’d be a fool to give it up. His rationalization to the school was wise and instructive:

I finally felt angry enough to say, “…as a science writer, I am extraordinary. I plan to be the best science writer in the world and I will shed luster on the medical school [at BU]. As a researcher, I am simply mediocre and…if there’s one thing this school does not need, it is one more merely mediocre researcher.”

[One faculty member complimented him on his bravery in fighting for academic freedom.] I shrugged, “There’s no bravery about it. I have academic freedom and I can give it to you in two words:

“What’s that?” He said.

Outside income,” I said.

In other words, Asimov knew his circle of competence and knew himself. He made that again clear in a 1988 interview, when he was asked about a number of other projects and interests outside of writing. He demurred on all of them:

SW: Do you have any time left for other things besides writing?

IA: All I do is write. I do practically nothing else, except eat, sleep and talk to my wife.

[…]

SW: Have you ever written any screenplays for SF movies?

IA: No, I’m no talent for that and I don’t want to get mixed up with Hollywood. If they are going to do something of mine, they will have to find someone else to write the screenplays.

[…]

SW: Do you like the covers of your books? Do you have any input in their design?

IA: No, I don’t have any input into that. Publishers take care of that entirely. They never ask any questions and I never offer any advice, because my artistic talent is zero.

[…]

SW: Do you have a favorite SF painter?

IA: Well, there is a number of painters that I like very much. To name just a few: Michael Whelan and Boris Vallejo are between my favorites. I’m impressed by them, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything – I don’t know that I have any taste in art.

[…]

SW: Have you ever tried to paint something yourself?

IA: No, I can’t even draw a straight line with a ruler.

[…]

SW: Do you have any favorite SF writers?

IA: My favorite is Arthur Clark. I also like people like Fred Pohl or Larry Niven and others who know their science. I like Harlan Ellison, too, although his stories are terribly emotional. But I don’t consider myself a judge of good science-fiction – not even my own.

Asimov knew and recognized his own constitution at a fairly early age, smartly seizing opportunities to build his life around that self-awareness in the way Hunter S. Thompson would advise young people to do years later.

In a separate posthumously published autobiography, Asimov reflected on his highly independent nature:

I never found true peace till I turned my whole working life into self-employment. I was not made to be an employee.

For that matter, I strongly suspect I was not made to be an employer either. At least I have never had the urge to have a secretary or helper of any kind. My instinct tells me that there would surely be interactions that would slow me down. Better to be a one-man operation, which I eventually became and remained.

Find What you Love, and Work Like Hell

To be prolific, he warns, one must be a
“single-minded, 
driven, non-stop person.”
— Interview with Isaac Asimov, 1979

Although Asimov was working the “candy store” hours and producing more output than nearly anyone of his generation, it was clear that he did it out of love.  The only reason he was able to write so much, he said, was “pure hedonism.”  He simply couldn’t not write. That would have been unfathomable.

One admission from his autobiography tells the tale best:

One of the few depressing lunches I have had with Austin Olney [Houghton Mifflen editor] came on July 7, 1959. I incautiously told him of the various books I had in progress, and he advised me strongly not to write so busily. He said my books would compete with each other, interfere with each other’s sales, and do less well per book if there were many.

The one thing I had learned in my ill-fated class in economics in high school was “the law of diminishing returns,” whereby working ten times as hard or investing ten times as much or producing ten times the quantity does not yield ten times the return.

I was rather glum after that meal and gave the matter much thought afterward.

What I decided was that I wasn’t writing ten times as many books in order to get ten times the monetary returns, but in order to have ten times the pleasure

One of Asimov’s best methods to keep the work flowing was to have more than one project going at a time. If he got writers’ block or got bored with one project, he simply switched to another project, a tactic which kept him from stopping work to agonize and procrastinate. By the time he came back to the first project, he found the writing flowed easily once again.

This sort of “switching” is a hugely useful method to improve your overall level of productivity and avoid major hair-pulling roadblocks. You can also use this tactic with books to improve your overall reading yield, switching between them as your mood and energy dictates.

Never Stop Learning

If anything besides sheer productivity defined Asimov, it was a thirst for knowledge. He simply never stopped learning, and with that attitude, he grew into a mental giant who was more than once accused of “knowing everything”:

Nothing goes to waste, if you’re determined to learn. I had already learned, for instance, that although I was one of the most overeducated people I knew, I couldn’t possibly write the variety of books I manage to do out of the knowledge I had gained in school alone. I had to keep a program of self-education in process. 

[…]

And, as I went on to discover, each time I wrote a book on some subject outside my immediate field it gave me courage and incentive to do another one that was perhaps even farther outside the narrow range of my training…I advanced from chemical writer to science writer, and, eventually, I took all of my learning for my subject (or at least all that I could cram into my head — which, alas, had a sharply limited capacity despite all I could do).

As I did so, of course, I found that I had to educate myself. I had to read books on physics to reverse my unhappy experiences in school on the subject and to learn at home what I had failed to learn in the classroom — at least up to the point where my limited knowledge of mathematics prevented me from going farther.

When the time came, I read biology, medicine, and geology. I collected commentaries on the Bible and on Shakespeare. I read history books. Everything led to something else. I became a generalist by encouraging myself to be generally interested in all matters.

[…]

As I look back on it, it seems quite possible that none of this would have happened if I had stayed at school and had continued to think of myself as, primarily, a biochemist…[so] I was forced along the path I ought to have taken of my own accord if I had had the necessary insight into my own character and abilities.

(Source: It’s Been a Good Life)

Still interested? Check out Asimov’s memoir I, Asimov, his collection of stories I, Robot, or his collection of letters, Yours, Isaac Asimov: A Life in Letters.

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: The Promiscuous Pursuit of 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. George Orwell before George Orwell. Montaigne was well-read, smart, critical, and possesed 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.

The Books That Influenced Montaigne

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.

From Fiction to Non-Fiction

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, 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.

The Lazy Reader

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 curious? Pick up Montaigne’s Essays and Bakewell’s biography for more.