An Ode to Books

“You are not what you write, but what you have read.” — Jorge Luis Borges. 1899–1986.

In a letter to my newborn grandson , I had this to say about books recently:

Just promise me that you will keep reading. Read until your eyes hurt. Read until you fall asleep with the book in your hands, then wake up and read some more. Read with a flashlight under the covers at night; highly recommended.

Never stop reading. Never stop learning. That’s my first piece of advice to you. Books are not just for school; they’re your best allies for the rest of your life. I hope, and have every reason to believe, that you will live to be a hundred years old or more, prospering well into the next century. The only way you can stay relevant in that future world is if you keep learning every day between now and then. It would be presumptuous of me to tell you what knowledge you need to be successful a century from now; but what I can tell you, definitively, is that the only path to that success is through constant lifelong learning.

If there’s one activity I’ve pursued in life that I’m proud of, it’s that I’ve read practically every day of my life — several hours a day, every single day. I used to do so at night, before falling asleep, even after a long day at work. Ever since retiring a couple of years ago, I find I spend more and more time snuggling up with a book and enjoying it even more since my mind is not preoccupied with other matters.

Reading for work and studying for school don’t qualify in this context. I don’t care that you’re reading computer science books at school or management books at work. Good for you but that’s not reading. I’m talking about the other type of reading, the kind you do for the sheer joy of it, on top of all that other reading. First for fun, as a kid, then as a hobby, as a teenager, then as continuing education, as an adult.

“If you cannot read all your books…fondle them — peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them, at any rate, be your acquaintances.” — Winston Churchill.

The thing about obsessive reading is that the more you read, the sweeter and more meaningful the experience becomes; and at every stage it teaches us something. If you do this, if you go on this journey with me, you will see that reading is not only the most rewarding experience you can have in the long run but also the most rewarding gift you can ever give yourself.

The more you read, the more you understand of what you read, the more rewards you get out of reading, the more you learn from the experience. You need to build up your reading muscles just like you build up your running muscles. The only difference is that this particular set of “muscles” is in your brain, not your body.

First you read adventure stories as a preteen. You learn about language itself, all its beautiful forms and narrative structure, from a beautifully written novel — be it Russian, British, French, or Chinese in origin. You also learn morality, whether veiled in the guise of Harry Potter or Tin Tin or Nancy Drew.

You will do this because you have no choice. Remember, you’re reading obsessively with me. Every day, every night — with a flashlight under a blanket or a reading lamp attached to your book — the modern equivalent of flashlights for adults.

“Reading with me is a disease.” — Theodore Roosevelt.

You will read novels and literature in your adolescence and early adult years. That’s where you learn about society at large, different lifestyles and cultures, love and hate, societal values and norms.

If you are lucky, like me, you will learn a second language and start reading — obsessively, of course — in that second language as well. Language is a lens into culture. The more lenses you have at your disposal, the sharper the image that emerges.

You will then graduate to memoirs and biographies, travel narratives and true adventure stories — everything from Polar expeditions to African explorers to Amazon river journeys. From these, you learn how far you can push the boundaries of human experience, how varied and interesting life can be.

Later, you will graduate to history, science, philosophy, and all their wonderful progeny of topics. There is so much to read out there that you’ll never grow bored nor will you even make a dent in the vast universe of books.

I’ve rarely gone back and read a book a second time at a later point in life. In the few cases that I’ve done so, books that had seemed transcendent upon a first reading were usually disappointing at best. The words on the page hadn’t changed; I had.

If you read obsessively for four or five decades, like I have, you end up reading a lot. I stopped reading fiction almost twenty years ago and don’t miss it. These days, I find factual narratives, historical accounts, science books, and non-fiction of all kinds a lot more interesting than novels. As Mark Twain said, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”

It would be a mistake to get stuck in any one genre your whole life — only reading novels, say. It would also be a mistake to give up and just stop reading altogether— like many people do once they get out of school. According to the Pew Research Center , fully one quarter of all American adults say they haven’t read a single book in the past year. They don’t know what they’re missing. It’s only through a dedication — an obsession — with life-long education — on a daily basis and through books — that we remain relevant. That we learn, that we grow.

Or, you could go watch TV and play video games. I’m asking for roughly the same investment in time. Your pick.Modify

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *