The Choice of Books

Snoop” – “What your stuff says about you”

Bookshelves” – “What your books (or lack thereof) say about you”

One sure window into a person’s soul is his or her reading list.” – Mary B. W. Tabor

I have about 7 or 8 bookcases (not bragging), averaging about 5 shelves per bookcase, in my house, all loaded with books. I must have accumulated thousands of books by now. Mostly psychology (Peck, Fromm, Becker, Bowen, Schnarch, Maslow, James Hollis, William James), modern pop-psyche and self-help/self-improvement (Jim Rohn, Neale Donald Walsch, Tolle, Don MIguel Ruiz, James Redfield), philosophy (Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Plato, Aristotle, Montaigne, Emerson, Thoreau, Sartre, Camus, Alain DeBotton, Ken Wilber), poetry (Rilke, Rilke, and more Rilke, Mary Oliver, David Whyte, William Stafford, Jack Gilbert, Roger Housden), religion (C.S. Lewis, Simone Weil, Thomas Merton, Meister Eckhert), spiritual (Dalai Lama, Pema Chödrön, Chögyam Trungpa, Krishnamurti, Rumi) books—basically all “how to live well” books.

For me the only reason to read a book is for what it has to say about “how to live well.”

And perhaps how to die well.

I went to the woods because I wished
to live deliberately, to front only the essential
facts of life, and see if I could not learn what
it had to teach, and not, when I came to die,
discover that I had not lived.” – Thoreau

If a book doesn’t speak in some way to this, then the book is for me the equivalent of bound toilet paper (“Californication“). I can get entertainment in a more encompassing and interesting form from a movie or a TV—I get the sights, sounds, dizzying special effects, the full-blown sensory overload, et cetera. I profoundly do not care about Harry Potter, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Twilight, Stephen King, or anything that can be translated fairly decently into a movie. And I am profoundly indifferent to whether the book was or was not better than the movie. Life is short; I’ll gladly wait for the movie—even if the movie isn’t as good as the book—and I’ll shaprne my mind reading something of substance in the meantime. Who cares whether the book or movie is better; I’ll never know because I’m never going to read the book! Books that can be made into movies are at best intellectual training wheels—stuff to read before moving on to the “right effin’ books” (“Good Will Hunting“).  And at worst they’re voluntary mind rot—the equivalent of a steady diet of potato chips and fried foods and soda to the mind. Or they’re the equivalent of running your head into a wall. Repeatedly. The vast majority of books are an escape—a way of self-numbing and or distracting and dissipating oneself.

Some people claim that it is okay to read trashy novels because sometimes you can find something valuable in them. You can also find a crust of bread in a garbage can, if you search long enough, but there is a better way.

Don’t just read the easy stuff. You may be entertained by it, but you will never grow from it.

The book you don’t read won’t help.

It isn’t what the book costs; it’s what it will cost if you don’t read it. Miss a meal if you have to, but don’t miss a book.

– Jim Rohn

Altogether, I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t startle us and grab our attention like a blow to the head, then why bother reading it? So it can make us happy? For God’s sake, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all! Books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, write for ourselves. What we need are books that affect us like a disaster, like the death of someone we love. We need books that make us feel like we’ve been banished into a desert far from everyone, books that hit us like a suicide. A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.” – Franz Kafka

To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.

The best books are not read even by those who are called good readers.

What does our contemporary culture amount to? There is nowadays, with very few exceptions, no taste for the best or for very good books. Even the college-bred and so-called liberally educated men and women really have little or no acquaintance with the best books. And as for the recorded wisdom of mankind—the ancient classics and Bibles—which are accessible to all who will know of them, there are the feeblest efforts anywhere made to become acquainted with them. Someone who has just come from reading perhaps one of the best books of the last few centuries will find how many with whom he can converse about it? Or suppose he comes from reading a Greek or Latin classic; he will find nobody at all to speak to, but must keep silence about it. 

Any man will go considerably out of his way to pick up a silver dollar; yet there are golden words, which the wisest men of antiquity have uttered, and whose worth the wise of every succeeding age have assured us of; —and yet we learn to read only as far as Easy Reading, the primers and class-books, and when we leave school, the “Little Reading,” and story-books, which are for boys and beginners; and our reading, our conversation and thinking, are all on a very low level, worthy only of pygmies and manikins.

There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on the face of things for us. How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book! The book exists for us, perchance, which will explain our miracles and reveal new ones. The at present unutterable things we may find somewhere uttered. These same questions that disturb and puzzle and confound us have in their turn occurred to all the wise men; not one has been omitted; and each has answered them, according to his ability, by his words and his life.

I think that having learned our letters we should read the best that is in literature. Yet most men are satisfied if they read or hear read, and perchance have been convicted by the wisdom of one good book, the Bible, and for the rest of their lives vegetate and dissipate their faculties in what is called easy reading. If others are the machines to provide this provender, they are the machines to read it. They read the nine thousandth tale about Zebulon and Sophronia (or Edward and Bella), and how they loved as none had ever loved before, and neither did the course of their true love run smooth, but oh how it did run and stumble, and get up again and go on, et cetera, et cetera. And all this they read with saucer eyes and erect and primitive curiosity, but without any improvement, that I can see, or any more skill in extracting or inserting the moral. The result is dullness of sight, a stagnation of the vital circulations, and a general deliquium and sloughing off of all the intellectual faculties. This sort of gingerbread is baked daily and more sedulously than pure wheat or rye-and-Indian in almost every oven, and finds a surer market.

I aspire to be acquainted with wiser men than this our Concord soil has produced, whose names are hardly known here. Or shall I hear the name of Plato and never read his book? As if Plato were my townsman and I never saw him—my next neighbor and I never heard him speak or attended to the wisdom of his words. But how actually is it? His Dialogues, which contain what was immortal in him, lie on the next shelf, and yet I never read them. We are underbred and low-lived and illiterate; and in this respect I confess I do not make any very broad distinction between the illiterateness of my townsman who cannot read at all and the illiterateness of him who has learned to read only what is for children and feeble intellects. We should be as good as the worthies of antiquity, but partly by first knowing how good they were. We are a race of tit-men, and soar but little higher in our intellectual flights than the columns of the daily paper. – Thoreau, adapted and slighty modified from “Walden,” chapter 3, “Reading

If a book doesn’t bring us more to life or help make us wiser or suggest to us how to live better, then why read it? To be entertained? At a certain point, to read to be entertained is a waste of time and gray matter, it’s a voluntary dissipation of one’s finer faculties. (And a mind is supposedly a terrible thing to waste.)

I keep all of my books. I tend to mark up most of my books—highlighters, pencils, dog ears, bookmarks. The better (wiser, more profound) the book, the more marked up it gets. I don’t buy a book unless it stands a fairly decent chance of getting marked up one way or another, meaning some books I will tend to find kinship with and will mark up in that spirit, whereas others I will disagree with (sometimes vehemently) and will I argue with or refute and annotate in that fashion. But either way, both offer me something to think on and cut my teeth intellectually on (“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” Books—good books, the right effin’ books—can and do perform that mental saw sharpening function). Most people read too quickly and not critically and mindfully enough; they don’t really examine the material or their own thoughts—or even give themselves and their own thoughts time and space to develop—

The purpose of a (really good) book . . . is to teach you how to think and not to do your thinking for you. Consequently if you pick up such a book and simply read it through, you are wasting your time. As soon as any thought stimulates your mind or your heart you can put the book down because your meditation has begun. To think that you are somehow obliged to follow the author of the book to his own particular conclusion would be a great mistake. It may happen that his conclusion does not apply to you. God may want you to end up somewhere else. He may have planned to give you quite a different grace than the one the author suggests you might be needing.” – Thomas Merton, from “New Seeds of Contemplation”

And the wiser and more profound the book, the more this is true.

And necessary.

I don’t consider a book to have been properly read unless it’s been thoroughly annotated and highlighted. Annotating—writing your own thoughts either in the margins or putting down the book mid-paragraph or mid-sentence and journaling your own thoughts—and highlighting and dog-earing are the equivalent chewing your food thoroughly before swallowing. And even if a book has been well annotated and highlighted, it may need to be read again. And again. And re-annotated and re-highlighted.  (And all of the previous highlighting and annotating will serve to show you what you missed or overlooked [or weren’t ready for] the first [or even second] time you read the book.)

Most truly worthwhile books don’t become intelligible until we have enough life experience to bring to our reading of them. And even then we need to read and re-read them critically, slowly—all the more so the more depth and experience and wisdom they have packed into them.


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