How to Read Fewer Books and Get Wiser – Free Ebook

The modern world firmly equates the intelligent
person with the well-read person. Reading

books, a lot of books, has become the hallmark
of brilliance as well, apparently, as the

supreme gateway to understanding. If we don’t
read four of this year’s major prize winning

books as well as maybe seven fascinating titles
that have received ardent reviews in the Sunday

supplements since March, then we’ll be condemned
to guilt and shame.

Yet amidst this pressure to eat our way
through an ever-larger number of titles, we

might pause to reflect on a fascinating aspect
of the pre-modern world: this world never

put people under any pressure to read very
much at all. Reading was held to be extremely

important, but the number of new books one
read was entirely by the by. This wasn’t

principally an economic point. Books were
very expensive of course, but this wasn’t

really the issue. What mattered was to read
a few books very well, not squander one’s

attention promiscuously on a great number
of volumes.

The premodern world directed us to read
so little because it was obsessed by a question

that modernity likes to dodge: what is the
point of reading? And it had answers. To take

a supreme example, Christians and Muslims
located the value of reading in a very specific

and narrow goal: the attainment of holiness.
To read was to try to approximate the mind

of God. In each case this meant that one book,
and one book only – the Bible or the Koran

  • was held up as vastly and incomparably more
    important than any other. To read this book,

repeatedly and with great attention, probably
five or so pages every day, was thought more

crucial than to rush through a whole library
every week; in fact reading widely would have

been regarded with suspicion, because most
other books would – to some extent – have

to prove misleading and distracting.

Similarly, in the Ancient Greek world,
one was meant to focus in on a close knowledge

of just two books: , because these were deemed
the perfect repository of the Greek code of

honour and the best guides to action in military
and civilian affairs.

We can pick up some of this minimalist
attitude to reading in early visual depictions

of one of the heroes of Christian scholarship,
St Jerome – who was by all accounts the supreme

intellect of Christendom, a man who translated
the Greek and Hebrew portions of the Bible

into Latin, wrote a large number of commentaries
on scripture and is now the patron saint of

libraries and librarians. But despite all
his scholarly efforts, when it came to showing

where and how St Jerome worked, one detail
stands out: there are almost no books in his

famous study. Strikingly, the most intelligent
and thoughtful intellectual of the early church

seems to have read fewer things than an average
modern eight year old.

Antonello da Messina, St Jerome in his study,
1475

The modern world has dramatically parted
ways with this minimalist ancient approach

to reading. We have adopted an Enlightenment
mantra that runs in a very different direction,

stating that there should be no limit to how
much we read because, in answer to the question

of why we do so, there is only one response
that will ever be encompassing or ambitious

enough: we read in order to know everything.

But we can hazard an observation: this
exhaustive approach to reading does not make

us particularly happy. So in order to ease
and simplify our lives, we might dare to ask

a very old-fashioned question: what am I reading
for? And this time, rather than answering

‘in order to know everything,’ we might
parcel off a much more limited, focused and

useful goal. We might – for example – decide
on a new mantra to guide our reading henceforth:

we might want to read in order to learn to
be content. Nothing less – and nothing more.

With this new, far more targeted ambition
in mind, much of the pressure to read constantly

and randomly starts to fade. Once we know
that we are reading to be content, we don’t

need to chase every book published this season.
We can zero in on titles that best explain

what we deem to be the constituent parts of
contentment. So for example, we may need a

few key books that will explain our psyches
to us, that will teach us about how families

work and how they might work better, that
can take us through how to find a job we can

love or how to develop the courage to develop
our opportunities. We’ll probably need some

books that talk about friendship and love,
sexuality and health. Some books that gently

guide us to how to minimise regret and learn
to die well.

The more we understand what reading is
for us, the more we can enjoy intimate relationships with a few works only. The truly well-read
person isn’t the one who has read a gargantuan

number of books, it’s someone who has let
themselves be deeply shaped by just a few,

very few well-chosen titles.

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