Tag: Reading

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 love 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 1/4 of them. But I keep adding.

Reading Big Books

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.

Article Summary

  • Reading doesn’t need to take up all of your time.
  • The most effective way to read more is to start with 25 pages a day.
  • Twenty five pages a day is almost 10,000 pages a year.
  • The number of pages you read is not as important as the fact that you’re enjoying it.

Reading a Book is a Conversation Between You and the Author

Marginalia—those tiny notes in the side margins of a book—is a contentious subject. Some people view this as a necessary part of the reading process. Others view it as sacrilege.

This beautiful excerpt from Mortimer Adler’s How To Read A Book is worth your consideration:

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 Book is Yours

If you bought the book it’s yours. Fold pages. Write in books. Rip pages out. The book is yours and the only real objective is transferring the knowledge from the author to you.

Thinking About Thinking

I wrote a response on quora recently to the question ‘how do I become a better thinker’ that generated a lot of attention and feedback so I thought I’d build on that a little and post it here too.

Thinking is not IQ. When people talk about thinking they make the mistake of thinking that people with high IQs think better. That’s not what I’m talking about. I hate to break it to you but unless you’re trying to get into Mensa, IQ tests don’t matter as much as we think they do. After a certain point, that’s not the type of knowledge or brainpower that makes you better at life, happier, or more successful. It’s a measure sure, but a relatively useless one.

If you want to outsmart people who are smarter than you, temperament and life-long learning are more important than IQ.

Two of the guiding principles that I follow on my path towards seeking wisdom are: (1) Go to bed smarter than when you woke up; and (2) I’m not smart enough to figure everything out myself, so I want to ‘master the best of what other people have already figured out.’

Acquiring wisdom is hard. Learning how to think is hard. It means sifting through information, filtering the bunk, and connecting it to a framework that you can use. A lot of people want to get their opinions from someone else. I know this because whenever anyone blurts out an opinion and I ask why, I get some hastily re-phrased sound-byte that doesn’t contextualize the problem, identify the forces at play, demonstrate differences or similarities with previous situations, consider base rates, or … anything else that would demonstrate some level of thinking. (One of my favorite questions to probe thinking is to ask what information would cause someone to change their mind. Immediately stop listening and leave if they say ‘I can’t think of anything.’)

Thinking is hard work. I get it. You don’t have time to think but that doesn’t mean you get a pass from me. I want to think for myself, thank you.

***

So one effective thing you can do if you want to think better is to become better at probing other people’s thinking. Ask questions. Simple ones are better. “Why” is the best. If you ask that three or four times you get to a place where you’re going to understand more and you’ll be able to tell who really knows what they are talking about. Shortcuts in thinking are easy, and this is how you tease them out. Not to make the other person look bad – don’t do this maliciously – but to avoid mistakes, air assumptions, and discuss conclusions.

Another thing you can do is to slow down. Make sure you give yourself time to think. I know, it’s a fast-paced internet world where we get some cultural machoism points for answering on the spot but unless it has to be decided at that very moment, simply say “let me think about that for a bit and get back to you.” The world will not end while you think about it.

You should also probe yourself. Try and understand if you’re talking about something you really know something about or if you’re just regurgitating some talking head you heard on the news last night. Your life will become instantly better and your mind clearer if you simply stop the latter. You’re only fooling yourself and if you don’t understand the limits of what you know, you’re going to get in trouble.

Learning How To Think

Learning how to think really means continuously learning.

How can we do that?

First we need a framework to put things on so we can remember, integrate, and make them available for use.

A Latticework of Mental Models, if you will.

Acquiring knowledge may seem like a daunting task. There is so much to know and time is precious. Luckily, we don’t have to master everything. To get the biggest bang for the buck we can study the big ideas from physics, biology, psychology, philosophy, literature, and sociology.

Our aim is not to remember facts and try to repeat them when asked. We’re going to try and hang these ideas on a latticework of mental models. Doing this puts them in a useable form and enables us to make better decisions.

A mental model is simply a representation of an external reality inside your head. Mental models are concerned with understanding knowledge about the world.

Decisions are more likely to be correct when ideas from multiple disciplines all point towards the same conclusion.

It’s like the old saying, “To the man with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” Let’s make every attempt not to be the man with only a hammer.

Charlie Munger further elaborates:

And the models have to come from multiple disciplines because all the wisdom of the world is not to be found in one little academic department. That’s why poetry professors, by and large, are so unwise in a worldly sense. They don’t have enough models in their heads. So you’ve got to have models across a fair array of disciplines.

You may say, “My God, this is already getting way too tough.” But, fortunately, it isn’t that tough because 80 or 90 important models will carry about 90% of the freight in making you a worldly wise person. And, of those, only a mere handful really carry very heavy freight.

These models generally fall into two categories: (1) ones that help us simulate time (and predict the future) and better understand how the world works (e.g. understanding a useful idea from like autocatalysis), and (2) ones that help us better understand how our mental processes lead us astray (e.g., availability bias).

When our mental models line up with reality they help us avoid problems. However, they also cause problems when they don’t line up with reality as we think something that isn’t true. So Beware.

In Peter Bevelin’s masterful book Seeking Wisdom, he highlights Munger talking about autocatalysis:

If you get a certain kind of process going in chemistry, it speeds up on its own. So you get this marvellous boost in what you’re trying to do that runs on and on. Now, the laws of physics are such that it doesn’t run on forever. But it runs on for a goodly while. So you get a huge boost. You accomplish A – and, all of a sudden, you’re getting A + B + C for awhile.

But knowing is not enough. You need to know how to apply this to other problems outside of the domain in which you learned it.

Munger continues:

Disney is an amazing example of autocatalysis … They had those movies in the can. They owned the copyright. And just as Coke could prosper when refrigeration came, when the videocassette was invented, Disney didn’t have to invent anything or do anything except take the thing out of the can and stick it on the cassette.

What models do we need?

I keep a running list that I’m filling in over time, but really how we store and sort these are individual preferences. The framework is not a one-stop-shop, it’s how it fits into your brain.

How can we acquire these models?

There are several ways to acquire the models, the first and probably best source is reading. Even Warren Buffett says reading is one of the best ways to get wiser.

But sadly if your goal is wisdom acquisition, you can’t just pick up a book and read it. You need to Learn How To Read A Book all over again. Most people look at my reading habits (What I’m Reading) and think that I speed read. I don’t. I think that’s a bunch of hot air. If you think you can pick up a book on a subject you’re unfamiliar with and in 30 minutes become an expert … well, good luck to you. Please go back to getting your opinions from twitter.

Focus on the big, simple ideas.

Focus on deeply understanding the simple ideas (see Five Elements of Effective Thinking). These simple ideas, not the cutting-edge ones are the ones you want to hang on your latticework. The latticework is important because it makes the knowledge useable – you not only recall but you internalize.

But the world is always changing … what should we learn first?

One of the biggest mistakes I see people making is to try and learn the cutting-edge research first. The way we prioritize learning has huge implications beyond the day-to-day. When we chase the latest thing, we’re really jumping into an arms race (see: The Red Queen Effect). We have to spend more and more of our time and energy to stay in the same place.

Despite our intentions, learning in this way fails to take advantage of cumulative knowledge. We’re not adding, we’re only maintaining.

If we are to prioritize learning, we should focus on ideas that change slowly – these tend to be the ones from the hard sciences. (see Adding Mental Models to Your Toolbox)

The models that come from hard science and engineering are the most reliable models on this Earth. And engineering quality control – at least the guts of it that matters to you and me and people who are not professional engineers – is very much based on the elementary mathematics of Fermat and Pascal: It costs so much and you get so much less likelihood of it breaking if you spend this much… And, of course, the engineering idea of a backup system is a very powerful idea. The engineering idea of breakpoints – that’s a very powerful model, too. The notion of a critical mass – that comes out of physics – is a very powerful model.

To help further prioritize learning

From : What Should I Read?

Knowledge has a half-life. The most useful knowledge is a broad-based multidisciplinary education of the basics. These ideas are ones that have lasted, and thus will last, for a long time. And by last, I mean mathematical expectation; I know what will happen in general but not each individual case.

Integrating Knowledge

(Source: Adding Mental Models to Your Toolbox)

Our world is mutli-dimensional and our problems are complicated. Most problems cannot be solved using one model alone. The more models we have the better able we are to rationally solve problems. But if we don’t have the models we become the proverbial man with a hammer.

To the man with a hammer everything looks like a nail. If you only have one model you will fit whatever problem you face to the model you have. If you have more than one model, however, you can look at the problem from a variety of perspectives and increase the odds you come to a better solution.

No one discipline has all the answers, only by looking at them all can we come to grow worldly wisdom.

Charles Munger illustrates the importance of this:

Suppose you want to be good at declarer play in contract bridge. Well, you know the contract – you know what you have to achieve. And you can count up the sure winners you have by laying down your high cards and your invincible trumps.

But if you’re a trick or two short, how are you going to get the other needed tricks? Well, there are only six or so different, standard methods: You’ve got long-suit establishment. You’ve got finesses. You’ve got throw-in plays.

You’ve got cross-ruffs. You’ve got squeezes. And you’ve got various ways of misleading the defense into making errors. So it’s a very limited number of models. But if you only know one or two of those models, then you’re going to be a horse’s patoot in declarer play…

If you don’t have the full repertoire, I guarantee you that you’ll over-utilize the limited repertoire you have – including use of models that are inappropriate just because they’re available to you in the limited stock you have in mind.

As for how we can use different ideas, Munger again shows the way …

Have a full kit of tools … go through them in your mind checklist-style. … [Y]ou can never make any explanation that can be made in a more fundamental way in any other way than the most fundamental way.

When you combine things you get lollapalooza effects — the integration of more than one effect to create a non-linear response.

A two-step process for making effective decisions

There is no point in being wiser unless you use it for good. You know, as Aunt May put it to Peter Parker, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

(Source: A Two-step Process for Making Effective Decisions)

Personally, I’ve gotten so that I now use a kind of two-track analysis. First, what are the factors that really govern the interests involved, rationally considered? And second, what are the subconscious influences where the brain at a subconscious level is automatically doing these things-which by and large are useful, but which often misfunction.

One approach is rationality-the way you’d work out a bridge problem: by evaluating the real interests, the real probabilities and so forth. And the other is to evaluate the psychological factors that cause subconscious conclusions-many of which are wrong.

This is the path, the rest is up to you.

Harper Lee’s Letter to Oprah Winfrey on Reading and Loving Books

Harper Lee, author of the much-loved novel To Kill a Mockingbird, wrote the following letter to Oprah Winfrey,

May 7, 2006

Dear Oprah,

Do you remember when you learned to read, or like me, can you not even remember a time when you didn’t know how? I must have learned from having been read to by my family. My sisters and brother, much older, read aloud to keep me from pestering them; my mother read me a story every day, usually a children’s classic, and my father read from the four newspapers he got through every evening. Then, of course, it was Uncle Wiggily at bedtime.

So I arrived in the first grade, literate, with a curious cultural assimilation of American history, romance, the Rover Boys, Rapunzel, and The Mobile Press. Early signs of genius? Far from it. Reading was an accomplishment I shared with several local contemporaries. Why this endemic precocity? Because in my hometown, a remote village in the early 1930s, youngsters had little to do but read. A movie? Not often — movies weren’t for small children. A park for games? Not a hope. We’re talking unpaved streets here, and the Depression.

Books were scarce. There was nothing you could call a public library, we were a hundred miles away from a department store’s books section, so we children began to circulate reading material among ourselves until each child had read another’s entire stock. There were long dry spells broken by the new Christmas books, which started the rounds again.

As we grew older, we began to realize what our books were worth: Anne of Green Gables was worth two Bobbsey Twins; two Rover Boys were an even swap for two Tom Swifts. Aesthetic frissons ran a poor second to the thrills of acquisition. The goal, a full set of a series, was attained only once by an individual of exceptional greed — he swapped his sister’s doll buggy.

We were privileged. There were children, mostly from rural areas, who had never looked into a book until they went to school. They had to be taught to read in the first grade, and we were impatient with them for having to catch up. We ignored them.

And it wasn’t until we were grown, some of us, that we discovered what had befallen the children of our African-American servants. In some of their schools, pupils learned to read three-to-one — three children to one book, which was more than likely a cast-off primer from a white grammar school. We seldom saw them until, older, they came to work for us.

Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books. Instant information is not for me. I prefer to search library stacks because when I work to learn something, I remember it.

And, Oprah, can you imagine curling up in bed to read a computer? Weeping for Anna Karenina and being terrified by Hannibal Lecter, entering the heart of darkness with Mistah Kurtz, having Holden Caulfield ring you up — some things should happen on soft pages, not cold metal.

The village of my childhood is gone, with it most of the book collectors, including the dodgy one who swapped his complete set of Seckatary Hawkinses for a shotgun and kept it until it was retrieved by an irate parent.

Now we are three in number and live hundreds of miles away from each other. We still keep in touch by telephone conversations of recurrent theme: “What is your name again?” followed by “What are you reading?” We don’t always remember.

Much love,
Harper

(Sources: Letters of Note)