There’s a wave of articles being published these days on the benefits of reading. And not just a book or two a year, but stacks of books.
Articles laying out Bill Gates’s reading list, or the one book that influenced Jeff Bezos the most, or how Elon Musk learned everything he knew from books. These are fun reads, and they offer helpful suggestions for titles you might want to download on your Kindle app, or perhaps even purchase in a good old-fashioned book store.
What I don’t buy, however, is the implication that many of these articles make: Just read the same number of books, and even the very same titles, as these mega-successful entrepreneurs, and, just perhaps, you’ll increase your own chances of being successful.
While I won’t argue with the possibility that reading books can boost your chances of career and financial success, I believe there are more profound and also more practical reasons for reading. As a source of intellectual stimulus, for instance, and as a source of emotional pleasure. Above all, reading is, I believe, the most powerful and accessible means to change what and how you think, and, by extension, change your life.
I recently rediscovered two books sitting on the shelves of my home library that explore this topic. One is by a 19th-century author from New England. The other is by a writer from the 20th and 21st century –also from New England.
In 1845, Henry David Thoreau lived in a cabin that he built with his own hands along the shores of Walden Pond in Massachusetts. He documented his time living alone, away from the bustle of civilization, and shared what he learned from this experience, in a book of essays that has become a classic of American literature, Walden.
In one essay, “Reading”, Thoreau expounds on the benefits and pleasures of reading. While he devotes a good part of his essay to arguing why people should read the Greek and Latin classics in their original languages, the bulk of his essay is spent on laying out his argument for why reading is such a vital and rewarding activity.
For Thoreau, the written word is the greatest art form there is, even greater than painting or sculpture:
“No wonder that Alexander carried the Iliad with him on his expeditions in a precious casket. A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips; not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself. The symbol of an ancient man’s thought becomes a modern man’s speech.”
For Thoreau, books are on a par with the wealth of families and nations:
“Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them.”
And what about the writers of these books?
“Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind.”
Another case for why we should read can be found in a book by Harold Bloom, the eminent Yale professor of literature, author of more than 20 books, and recipient of the MacArthur “genius” award. In How to Read and Why, a book-length meditation on reading, Bloom starts with two reasons why we should read. The first: Reading is a source of wisdom in a world saturated with information.
“There is no single way to read well, though there is a prime reason why we should read. Information is endlessly available to us; where shall wisdom be found? If you are fortunate, you encounter a particular teacher who can help, yet finally you are alone, going on without further mediation.”
He follows this with a second reason, and with an ironic twist: As a solitary activity, reading actually helps you conquer loneliness.
“Reading well is one of the great pleasures that solitude can afford you, because it is, at least in my experience, the most healing of pleasures. It returns you to otherness, whether in yourself or in friends, or in those who may become friends. Imaginative literature is otherness, and as such alleviates loneliness. We read not only because we cannot know enough people, but because friendship is so vulnerable, so likely to diminish or disappear, overcome by space, time, imperfect sympathies, and all the sorrows of familial and passionate life.”