Finding time to read has never been an issue for me. I read different books at different levels — you don’t put the same effort into Harry Potter as you do Seneca. Reading is the best way to get smarter. And while I’ve always taken notes while reading to improve my ability to remember what I’ve read, I’ve had a nagging feeling that I was missing part of the work.
Perhaps, I’ve been reading too much and reflecting too little.
As I reflect more on the relationship between reading and acquiring wisdom, I discovered Schopenhauer’s classic On Reading and Books.
For me, reading has always been about this website’s tagline: Mastering the best of what other people have already figured out.
In The Prince, Machiavelli offered the following advice: “A wise man ought always to follow the paths beaten by great men, and to imitate those who have been supreme, so that if his ability does not equal theirs, at least it will savour of it.”
Seneca, writing on the same subject, said, “Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides.”
So it makes sense to start with the people that came before us. No matter what problem we face, odds are someone has faced it before and written about it. No need to start from scratch right?
We return to the fundamental questions. What does it mean to read? Is reading the path to acquiring wisdom? If not why?
These are the questions that Schopenhauer attempts to address in On Reading and Books.
Mortimer Adler believed that reading is a conversation between you and the author. On this Schopenhauer comments:
It’s important to take time to think about what we’re reading and not merely assume the thoughts of the author. We need to digest, synthesize, and organize the thoughts of others if we are to understand. This is the grunt work of thinking. It’s how we acquire wisdom.
This is how we acquire foundational knowledge. The knowledge that allows us to pull forth relevance when reading and bring it to consciousness. Without this foundational knowledge, we are unable to separate the signal from the noise.
Reading consumes time. And if we equate time with money, it should not be wasted on bad books. In an argument that pulls to mind two filters for what to read, Schopenhauer writes:
Knowing what to read is important but so is its inversion— knowing what not to read.
In Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami makes the argument that “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” On this Schopenhauer said:
On the two types of literature, Schopenhauer comments:
Commenting on why we learn little from what we read, he writes:
But reading good works is not enough. We must re-read important works immediately because it aids our understanding, a concept that Mortimer Adler echoes.
And the final part of the essay I want to draw your attention to speaks to how advancement happens in a flurry of false starts, and answers the age-old question of why so many luminaries — whether scientific or even artistic — fail to be recognized in their present age as they will later come to be seen by the world.
If you think Schopenhauer is for you, pick up a copy of The Essential Schopenhauer: Key Selections from The World As Will and Representation and Other Writings.
This piece originally appeared on Farnam Street.
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