The Biggest Lesson I Learned From 3000 Books

This post was originally written for The Startup.

‘Books stretch the reach of our thought sequences; they grant us superhuman abilities, pumping up the brain to giddy heights.’ — Solitude, Michael Harris

Clunky, conservative math tells me I’ve read at least 3000 books so far in my life. 

I’m 21, I learned to read at age 5 and if you exclude rereads (I’ve been known to reread books 10–20 times), ones I’ve started and not finished, and books read as research for work, I’ve easily averaged a couple of hundred per year. Of course, the numbers are irrelevant. It could be less or more. Who knows.

People sometimes ask me what the ‘outcome’ of all that reading is. It’s the wrong question. There’s no better way to spoil your enjoyment of something than to do it because you’re expecting a particular outcome. 

Those who read because they think it will automatically make them smarter or richer or more successful always seem to enjoy it the least. If you think everything needs to have a tangible outcome, you’re probably mentally still stuck in school where books are read for a grade.

Like meditation and nutrition, reading has become this trendy thing that everyone wants to ‘hack’ (aka, ruin) instead of just doing it. It reminds me of the scene in Perfume where the protagonist thinks he can turn a cat into cat-scented perfume. When you try to draw out the essence of what makes something valuable, you easily destroy its actual value. 

The outcome is my life. I can’t disentangle myself from the books I’ve read because I can never know who I’d be without them.

 Most of the lessons I’ve learned come from the act of reading itself, not the content of books.

***

Reading taught me how to live. That’s the lesson that matters. It taught me that the most significant payoffs are usually delayed and non-linear. It taught me the value of slogging my way through something challenging. It taught me humility, and the ability to embrace my own ignorance. It taught me persistence and long-term thinking. 

Ask a runner what they’ve learned from running, or a musician what they’ve learned from playing the guitar, or an avid chef what they’ve learned from cooking every night, and you’ll probably get a similar answer. 

***

In Missing Out, (a book which confuses me because it’s 90% terrible and 10% genius) Adam Phillips describes the problem with simplified versions of classic texts. They assume that the benefits of reading them come exclusively from the basic summarised content and ignore the fact that the effort required to grapple with the language is a large part of their power:

“There is no pleasure in the language resisting what we might want to do with it and no assumption that the pleasures of resistance are desired.”

Or, as Susan Neiman writes in Why Grow Up?:

“To love a book means to wrestle with it, to take it seriously enough to be unsettled by it…You wrestle differently with a classic at twenty as you do at fifty.”

Remember reading Shakespeare at school? Remember staring at the page, eyes watering, head aching, hating everything, until you made sense of a line? That’s a valuable experience. That’s humbling. 

It does us good to grasp at something just outside of our reach.

***

We misunderstand reading if we think it’s solely entertainment. Sure, it can be. A good chunk of the books I read are purely for fun and I don’t challenge myself as much as I should. But the grappling is also part of it. 

I remember reading Kafka, Freud, Greer, de Beauvoir, and Naomi Wolf when I was about 11 and floundering the whole time. The same was true for reading Baudrillard, Malcolm McLuhan, Foucault and Marx in college, and reading Peter Singer at university. And for reading Orwell, Jack London and Dickens in primary school. 

But as I’ve revisited those authors and books, I’ve found that they occupy a far larger space in my consciousness than the ones I sailed through. 

Reading taught me that what matters rarely comes easy and what comes easy rarely ends up mattering much to us. It teaches us persistence, as Orwell writes in Books V Cigarettes:

“There are books one reads over and over again, books that become part of the furniture of one’s mind and alter one’s whole attitude to life, books that one dips into but never reads through, books one reads in a single sitting and forgets a week later; and the cost in terms of money, may be the same in each case.”

Again: most of the books you read will do nothing for you. I’ve probably given up on as many as I’ve finished. It’s worth it for the few that do matter.

***

There’s another side to this persistence. Reading is meditative because it forces us to quieten our own ego and stop thinking about anything beyond the author’s words. 

Silent reading is an impressive neurological feat, even if it seems mundane. For the majority of the time people have been reading, they read out loud. The first silent readers were treated as if they had supernatural abilities. 

Our brains are not designed to read and to do so, we appropriate circuitry evolved for different purposes. That, in itself, teaches us empathy and greater control over our minds. John Biguenet writes in Silence (Object Lessons):

‘…reading is an act of hospitality towards another’s mind, in which we silence our voice in courtesy to the voice of another’s consciousness, a voice that alternates with our own in conversation.

If my experience guides, reading is essentially a fitful silencing of the self, at least when the self is able to accept silence.’

To read, we need the humility to let ourselves be silenced.