Attar’s hope was that his birds quest could serve as a mirror we can use to become more self aware. Here is Attar’s verse at the poems conclusion:
I, with my words,
Have shown to sleeping men their souls as birds.
And if these words can prompt one heart to wake
From lifelong stupor for their mystery’s sake,
I’ll know, I’ll have no doubt, that all my pain
And grief are over, and were not in vain-
I will have been a lamp, a candle’s light
That burns itself, and makes the whole world bright.1
Attar’s poem is a mirror for cultivating self awareness.
Attar’s poem begins with the birds electing the Hoopoe as their guide. As soon as the journey begins so do the birds excuses, doubts, and questions. The Hoopoe answers each bird with 3-4 allegorical stories. This pattern of question and multiple stories as an answer repeats and makes up most of the Conference of the Birds.
For example, one bird fears death. So the Hoopoe tells a story about Socrates:
When Socrates lay close to death, a youth- Who was his student in the search for Truth- Said: ‘Master, when we’ve washed the man we knew And brought your shroud, where should we bury you?’ He said: ‘If you can find me when I’ve died, Then bury me wherever you decide.- I’ve never found myself; I cannot see How when I’m dead you could discover me. Throughout my life not one small particle Had any knowledge of itself at all!’2
Sounds like the ever whimsical Socrates to me.
Attar mimics and, I think, surpasses Plato’s story about this same moment:
[Crito said] ‘how shall we bury you?’ ‘In any way you like,’ said Socrates, ‘if you can catch me and I do not escape you.’ And laughing quietly, looking at us, he said: ‘I do not convince Crito that I am this Socrates talking to you here and ordering all I say, but he thinks that I am the thing which he will soon be looking at as a corpse, and so he asks how he shall bury me.’3
Platonic echo aside, Attar’s Conference of Bird’s also resembles Dante’s Inferno; both stories are framed as journeys to God which explore human virtues and vices for listener and or readers benefit.
Like Dante, Attar had a soft spot for the virtuous of other religious traditions. As we’ve seen for example, noble non-Muslims such as Socrates are approved of by Attar.
But, despite this soft spot for specific virtuous Greek philosophers -such as as Socrates- Attar condemns Greek philosophy in general:
How will you know the truths religion speaks While your’re philosophizing with the Greeks? How can you be a man of faith while you’re still wrapped in their philosophic lore? If someone traveling on love’s Way should say ‘Philosophy’, he doesn’t know loves way; […] Philosophy, though, snares you with its ‘why’s And ‘how’s, and it mostly ensnares the wise. […] Medina’s wisdom is enough, my friend, Throw dirt on Greece, and all that Greece might send.4
Attar sees that love is the true path to wisdom and God, and that Greek philosophy leads us away from love.
I have to disagree with Attar.
Generally, Greek philosophers saw love and the proper practice of it as the key to self awareness and self improvement.
Generally speaking, proper reason mirrors proper love in the Greek philosophical tradition; one cannot reason well without love or love well without reason; reason and love act in harmony when either is done well.
But Attar, unlike his Greek predecessors, sees reason as always in opposition to love. As he puts it so eloquently:
My book’s all madness, Reason won’t appear Within it’s pages, she’s a stranger here, And till the soul breathes in this madness she Remains a stranger to eternity.5
I’ve spent too much time philosophizing with the Greeks to be able to agree with Attar’s complete rejection of reason.
But, thankfully, we don’t need to agree with Attar entirely to see how we can use his poem as a mirror to ritually channel our awareness for the sake of self improvement.
We simply need to be very clear about why Attar distrusts reason…
What’s the reason Attar distrusts ‘reason’?
I think we all can benefit from taking Attar seriously here, especially if you’re the kind of person attached to seeing themselves as ‘logical’ or ‘rational’ rather than ’emotional.’
It would be easy, boring and lazy to dismiss Attar’s distrust of reason as complete nonsense. More to the point, such a lazy dismissal would make it much harder to enjoy or benefit from Attar’s Conference of Bird’s.
Whether or not we agree with Attar’s reasons for distrusting reason we need to understand them to understand him, or give a real reason why he might be wrong.
Here’s what I think Attar is up to…
Now, I’m certain you’ve noticed at some point in your life that you can rarely -if ever- convince people to believe something based on pure logic, reason, or empirical claims.
That’s because a more reliable way -perhaps the only reliable way- to change someone’s mind is telling them stories that appeal indirectly to them.
This is of course, exactly what Attar does.
Attar’s poem is a bunch of stories, not a bunch of systematic ‘reasons.’
Still, there is a recurring pattern behind most of Attar’s enjoyable stories, one which amounts to a kind of reasoned argument when we examine his poem as a whole.
In Attar’s stories, usually a lover falls in love with someone they are perceived as being unworthy to love: a beggar for a prince, an ascetic for a princess, a Sufi for God, etc,
Generally, the pattern in Attar’s poem is that a social inferior falls in love with a social superior. This love is usually seen as scandalous, and as a rule of thumb the lovers love for the beloved is questioned and challenged by society.
Most of Attar’s stories end badly for the social inferior. Often in death. But this ‘death’ is shown as a metaphor for our egos death and changes in our self understanding. Death is seen as only a kind of change, and change as a kind of death.
This is why Attar’s and Plato’s Socrates laughs when his followers desire to bury ‘him.’ ‘Socrates’ won’t be around after death. Nor will ‘Socrates’ experience his own death. In other words, death is not an event ‘we’ experience in life.
Good ol Socrates.
There’s some wisdom in distrusting reason in favor of intuitive love.
For it is only when we let go of who we think we are -and what we are attached to thinking we look like to others- that we can become more aware of who we truly are, which is the first step in any process of self improvement.
This is why the social inferior always falls for the social inferior falls for a social superior in Attar’s stories. You can only improve your character by falling in love with someone who in some way represents a more noble version of who you could become.
To psychologically die and resurrect as a new and more noble person, you need an intuitive love of nobility. This intuitive love of nobility -of what Attar might see as God- will always be scandalous to society because it requires sacrificing part of who you presently are for an unrealized future self. This requires personal and social change. This is an act of faith, or at least an act of intuitive love. An act which will mystify anyone invested in keeping you or their society as is. It is therefore exceptionally reasonable, but perhaps unwise, for both you, and others, to oppose the growth of your own character. Hence, Attar’s skeptical attitude towards reason; it often opposes our intuitive love of what is truly excellent -with serious consequences.
Yet, Attar’s distrust of reason goes deeper than this.
I doubt Attar would be satisfied with us letting go of a rationalistic obsession with our current Self in favor of pursuing a fluid path of self and societal improvement.
Attar want us to dissolve our Self and loyalty to others into a mystic rapture of ‘oneness’ with the world; by submitting to a true, un-reasoned, intuitive and spontaneous love for God, the universe, and everyone in it.
As the translators of my copy of the Conference of Birds put it:
Certain of the beliefs central to Sufism seem to engage Attar’s imagination more than others.
Two themes in particular are diffused throughout the whole poem -the necessity for destroying the Self, and the importance of passionate love.
Both are mentioned in every conceivable context and not only at the ‘appropriate’ moments in the narrative.
The two [themes] are connected: the Self is seen as an entity dependent on pride and reputation, there can be no progress until the pilgrim is indifferent to both, and the surest way of making him indifferent is the experience of overwhelming love.6
Attar’s stories show again, and again, and again, that through the right kind of love we over come our selfish vanity and find the nature of god, the universe, and ourselves as more interrelated than we imagined.
Attar wishes us to see that we are the universe witnessing itself -that we are all ‘god’- and that the right kind of love is indiscriminate, universal, and impartial to all ‘differences.’
After all, if ‘we’ are ‘everything’ and all ‘god’ then preferring to love some people or things more than others is downright foolish, because all we are doing is rejecting ‘ourselves.’
This is why the Conference of the Birds ends the way it does.
At the very end of the story, the birds that persevered throughout the poem and heard all of the Hoopoes stories find themselves looking into a pond. Within it, they see God within themselves reflected, the very thing they started their journey in search of.
Attar’s prologue succinctly states what we are to take away from that scene and the Conference of the Birds as a whole:
I think this is the reason why Attar distrusts reason in general.
Reasoning with others always creates conceptual differences between things, otherwise we can’t speak of one thing being different than another. And if we are the universe witnessing itself, then ‘reason,’ as well as language, merely creates false categories and abstractions, enslaving us to concepts, blinding us to how interconnected everything and everyone is.
While I think this is all a useful metaphor we benefit from learning, I think this metaphor creates just as many problems as it solves.
Let me first explain where I think Attar is right, and helpful to us all, before I move on to places where he creates problems for us if we value social relationships, friendship, or family.
We can all agree that I am not the same person I was when I was 10.
The only reason I think of there being a continuity between 10 year old me and present day me is because I automatically use the concept of the Self.
As I imagine Attar might wisely say: I am a fool if I out of loyalty to 10 year old me, I refuse to try a new activity because I want to be ‘true to myself.’
For example, 10 year old me thought that skateboarding was something dumb punks did because 10 year old me recited the opinions of his Catholic grandma. Spongebob Squarepants was also suspect, for her, and thus for me, just in case you were wondering.
The early 2000s Kids Tv Show Rocket Power was also suspect in my childhood. Why? It glorified the great satan of skateboarding.
Anyway, years later, I only realized how silly my prejudices were as friends of mine told me stories about their love of Spongebob and skateboarding.
These friends opened up new (and truer) ways of seeing the world for me.
My reasons to distrust Spongebob and skateboarding were ridiculous, but if someone had tried to reason or argue me out of them, I likely wouldn’t have listened. My ‘reasons’ came from a foolish, if understandable, loyalty to the opinions of a loved one.
Attar is, like a good friend, excellent at telling us stories which help us get rid of silly ideas we get from ourselves and others about who we really are, can be, and whether Spongebob is corrupting the youth.
Sometimes ‘reason’ is just a convenient and socially respected cudgel we -or society- use on ourselves and others as a means of creating a conformity as meaningless as it is misguided or damaging. This is Attar’s concern, and why he can help us.
Attar is great at helping us see and imagine who we really are, and could become, because his stories constantly remind us how fluid who we are really is.
So that’s what sound about Attar’s distrust of reason, and why he’s especially worth a read, but here’s the rub.
Attar doesn’t distrust reason in specific cases; he doubts reason is ever useful. Because if we are the universe witnessing itself, reason can only ever divide and blind us into partial, foolish, and selfish love.
From Attar’s way of seeing things, my 10 year old preferential beliefs about skateboarding and Spongebob are as delusional as my preferential love for close friends and family.
After all, where do we usually get get our reasons from, and who do we usually address them to?
While we can marginally reason on our own, we primarily do so because of, with, and for others we have social relationships with.
Reason is primarily a social tool, like storytelling, that we use to renew, repair, and reform our social relationships and society.
This is why Attar’s categorical distrust of reason leads to a categorical distrust all social relationships.
From Attar’s way of seeing things, both reason and social relationships imprison us into a partial, limited, and distinct sense of self apart from the universe as a whole.
If you’re like me, you probably don’t find this side of Attar helpful, and want to pinpoint where he went wrong, especially because he’s so helpful at freeing us from foolishly hating things, such as Spongebob.
Plato can help us answer Attar.
Plato’s answer is one Attar might not agree with, but Plato’s answer will let us read, enjoy, and make sense of Attar whether or not we fully agree with Attar’s categorical distrust of reason.8
Plato has Socrates argue that a categorical distrust of reason is as foolish, misguided, and silly as hating all humanity.
SOCRATES: We must not become haters of reason as people become haters of humanity. There is no greater evil one can suffer than to hate reasonable discourse. A hatred of reason and a hatred of humanity arise in the same way.
A hatred of humanity comes when someone without knowledge or skill has placed great trust in someone else and believes him to be altogether truthful, sound and trustworthy.
Then a short time afterwards, they find him to be wicked and unreliable. Then this happens in another case. When this happens enough, especially with those you believed to be close friends, then in the end, after many such blows, people come to hate all humanity and to believe that no one is sound in any way at all.
Such a hatred of humanity comes most easily to those that have little experience and skill in social relationships. For great experience would lead one to believe -what is in fact true- that the very good and the very wicked are both quite rare, and that most people are between these two extremes.9
A complete distrust of reason, verging on hatred, arises when we have frequently been let down by arguments. Or when someone else’s words no longer match their conduct; when we are betrayed or lied to.
Yet, if we find ourselves constantly let down by others, or their arguments, this means we have something to learn, not that we should give up on our ability to learn.
Plato compared the hatred of reason to the hatred of humanity for a very good reason.
For Plato, and much of the rest of Greek philosophy, reason was primarily something you did by speaking with others – it was more of a social act than a private mental discussion.
In so far as we can reason alone, it is by having a conversation between the various sub-personalities and intuitive desires which make up our consciousness. Reasoning well is a social act, even when done with oneself.
Thus, giving up on reason does not just mean giving up on your own ability to think or speak, but giving up on our collective ability to clearly discuss things, learn, and have plans and relationships with each other.
Ideally, therefore, conscious reason and intuitive love harmonize with each other, however exactly that harmony works out or is facilitated…10
I think, with Plato, that we should not hate everyone else, or all reason, but take courage, and eagerly question and wonder -in the company of trusted friends and storytellers- what led us to mistaken love or reason in the first place.
Still, whether we prefer to see love and reason like Plato or Attar, we can benefit from theConference of the Birds by using it’s stories as a mirror for cultivating self awareness. His poem, is like a journal, a way of regularly ritually reviewing the direction of our life.
Attar’s stories are enjoyable and useful with or without us fully agreeing with his views on love, reason, or God.
Just please don’t give up on reason or humanity because of a few bad apples.
Why is it that you want to read? Tell me that. If you turn to reading for the sake of entertainment or to acquire knowledge of some kind, you’re frivolous and lazy. But if you’re directing your reading to the right end, what else could that be than happiness? And if reading doesn’t secure happiness for you, what use does it serve?1– Epictetus
Why Do You Want to Read ‘Better’?
I assume you already like to read.
Or, that you want to find ways to enjoy reading more, whether or not you already read.
Maybe you want to better remember what you read, or a more reliable way to select great reading?
I’ve written this post to help satisfy someone who desires any or all of the above. To do this I’ll show how good reading is similar to growing plants, dancing, and good friendship.
But, before you try to learn from my ‘how to,’ or anyone else’s for that matter, I’d encourage you to ask yourself ‘why?’
Why do you want to read better?
For in reading as in everything else; without a good ‘why’ or supporting mindset no ‘how-to’s’ will stick, as time passes and your habitual behavior and mindsets overpower temporary whims like ‘reading better.’
So dig deep.
What does ‘better’ mean to you in the context of reading?
Why do you want to read at all?
Without personal reasons you can effortlessly, skillfully, and clearly articulate it’s hard to change your reading habits, much less any habit.
I read because it helps me better understand myself and others; it focuses what I recall about the moments, conversations, and places in my life; it helps me feel more connected to my family, friends, and the world at large.
I feel I am who I am and value what I do because of the subtle mix between what I’ve read, my life, and my friends.
If you think about it, reading is a kind of sacrificial activity, because it makes us die for a time to the other things and people in our lives.
Good reading returns me to the world in a state of wonder; it restores the beauty to day to day life while empowering and challenging me to become more self aware, respectful, and loving. I read to craft myself and my social relationships for the better.
I read to live well. I don’t live to read.
This is what ‘reading better’ means to me. What does it mean for you?
[The expert] is a sedentary, concentrated solitary enthusiast, who searches through books to discover some particular grain of truth upon which he has set his heart. If the passion for reading conquers him, his gains dwindle and vanish between his fingers.
A reader, on the other hand, must check the desire for learning at the outset; if knowledge sticks to him well and good, but to go in pursuit of it, to read on a system, to become a specialist or an authority, is very apt to kill what suits us to consider the more humane passion for pure and disinterested reading.2
Virginia Woolf: a lady with damn good reading advice.
The only reading expertise that I think is worth cultivating is the ability to read the right things at the right times, such that they help you have more spontaneous, meaningful, and fulfilling relationships in your life.
Working on gaining any other kind of expertise dabbles in the necromancy of pedantry, which usually ends in reading books “written by the dead to be read for the dead.”3
Ralph Waldo Emerson, who will act as a guiding voice today, implicitly understood the danger of reading solely for the sake of looking like an expert.
As he put it:
Some meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books.4
The mistake of meek young men is the result of a kind of pedantry, which is an occupational hazard and undesirable trait in a frequent reader.
Pedants imprison and flagellate themselves within within narrow and limited enclosures.5 Should their reading reading roam outside the paginated pasture of their expertise they will feel like a fool and be known as one by their kindred wiseacres; the goal behind reading for expertise is ritual combat with anyone invading one’s own intellectual fiefdom.
Pedant readers are in a zero sum arms race of mutually assured destruction. They stockpile arsenals of jargon and armies of ‘fun’ facts. They are tyrants of table talk who deploy their readings as spectacles, smokescreens, and cudgels.
Their vice, however, easily arises among anyone, reader or not, if it is not regularly, vigorously, and consciously opposed. Anyone -however formally or informally educated- can acquire the Sisyphean vice of a lust for expertise.
Sisyphus was cursed to forever roll a boulder up a hill. Whenever Sisyphus nears the top the boulder rolls down again. Sisyphus can never succeed in his task, yet he can never stop trying. Reading, or doing anything, for sole sake of expertise is Sisyphean because what we don’t know will always exceed what we do know. Don’t read like Sisyphus.
What gives reading value is what you do with it; not what or how much you’ve read.
In the poetry of the ancient Indian storyteller Visnu Sarma:
If you think I’ve tarried too long on the subject of pedantry and should get on to the ’10 ways;’ I will momentarily, but I must defer you a little longer.
You see, reading is a powerful way to affect ones life for good or bad.
Reading doesn’t guarantee you will become a better person; it can just as easily make you a worse person if pursued in the wrong way or for the wrong reasons.
Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end, which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire. 7
It is why you want to read that determines whether or not reading is a good idea for you.
So ask yourself one last time, why do you want to read better?
Reading is just my preferred way of learning; it need not be everyone’s.
Learn however best suits you, whether that be through: movies, television, youtube, podcasts, audiobooks, conversation, direct experience(s), or whatever best empowers and challenges you.
I think the only truly wrong way to learn is to believe there is only one right way to learn for everyone.
If you think reading could be your preferred way of learning, or become another way for you to learn, read on; the ’10 ways’ now begin.
1. Read Multiple Books at the Same Time
The easiest way to read better is to enjoy reading, and the easiest way to do that is to learn how to read multiple books at the same time.
If you read multiple books at the same time you have more fun while also reading each individual book “better.”
Reading is like eating.
A varied, nutritious, and balanced reading diet is key to your health.
It’s easier, and more enjoyable, to describe what something tastes like to yourself and others when you can compare it to other food; the same applies to books.
When you read multiple books at the same time you can’t help but compare them, which deepens your engagement and helps you better articulate what parts you like about one or dislike about any book.
Simultaneously reading a large quantity of books automatically improves the quality of the questions you can ask of the books, yourself, and others.
When you read books simultaneously any individual book is not an isolated event. Rather, each book provokes questions and answers which another book answers and questions in an endless dance.
Reading this way becomes a way of life rather than an activity that stops and starts upon isolated books.
2. Read Books in as Many Chunks as Possible
I think good reading is like growing plants.
A reader wants a healthy mind as a farmer does healthy plants, and both need to regularly switch their crops. Because too much of one plant in one field for too long is bad for the soil and harms the plants themselves. Likewise, too much of one book or type of book for too long is harmful to oneself.
Unless we carefully, regularly, and diversely till our mental fields, we will fail to germinate with an improved conduct, character, or set of ideas.
Thus, I prefer to read at least ten books simultaneously; ideally the books are in different genres and on different subjects.
Rarely do I like to read a single book straight through, instead I prefer to savor books in as many chunks or chapters as possible.
I find that when you read one chunk of a book and then move onto another chunk of a different book it becomes easier to understand, enjoy, and remember what you read.
Reading this way also ensures that each book is part of a larger series of questions and answers from other books. This increases the odds that my reading permeates my mind and forms my day to day conduct.
In Emerson’s more metaphorical words, if we want to more effortlessly form our habitual mindsets and conduct through reading we may benefit from seeing ourselves as ‘the books book;’8‘our life is the text and books the commentary.’9
A young Emerson.
If you want what you read to become a part of your life -and change your day to day conduct- you can’t rush through books, especially ones you don’t want to put down.
Books need time to marinate and mix in your mind if they are to properly season your soul.
Thus, the more I like a book the more chunks I read it in.
More chunks means more engagement means more memories means more consciously chosen habitual mindsets and conduct.
Reading in chunks also makes less interesting books more tolerable and gives them a chance to arouse my faltering interest.
For example, If there’s a book I’ve lost my passion for reading I will read a chunk of the boring book between two chunks of exciting books.
One of two good things happens.
Either the boring book becomes tolerable, or I actually find something to like about it because of a question or idea the exciting books gave me.
Creatively combining different readings is key if your goal is the practical improvement of yourself.
As Emerson once said:
One must be an inventor to read well. […] There is then creative reading as well as creative writing.
When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion.
Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world.10
The simplest way to read more effortlessly, skillfully, and ‘creatively’ is to read in chunks.
3. Read to the Rhythm of the Long Dance
Good reading is like good dancing.
When done well, both reading and dancing follow a rhythm.
How do you find the right reading or dancing rhythm?
Look to your partner.
What happens when a dancer ignores the size, flexibility, and strength of their dance partner? You get bad dancing.
The size, flexibility, and a strength of a dance partner suggest a dancing rhythm, just as the genre, intended audience, and style of a book suggests a certain reading rhythm.
Some writing can and should be skimmed, spoken out loud, performed, etc.
If you ignore the nature of a book, judge it by the wrong standards, or try to read it the wrong way you’ll be like a sloppy, careless, and dangerous dance partner.
Good dancing is a formulaic and spontaneous ritual between dance partners.
We dance and we read to create something special with someone special; to create something we could not on our own.
Here is Emerson on how to creatively dance through your reading:
‘Do not attempt to be a great reader. Read for facts and not by the bookful. You must know ownership in facts. What another sees and tells you is not yours but his.’
The reader is to take only what really suits them. Emerson tells us we ought to ‘learn to divine books, to feel those that you want without wasting much time over them. Remember, you must know only the excellent of all that has been presented. But often a chapter is enough. The glance reveals what the gaze obscures.’
When pressed for details on how exactly to do this, Emerson hesitated before saying: ‘Well learn how to tell from the beginning of the chapters and from the glimpses of the sentences whether you need to read them entirely through. So turn page after page, keeping your writers thoughts before you, but not tarrying with [an author], until he has brought you the thing you are in search of; then dwell with him, if so be he has what you want. But recollect you read only to start your own team.’11
We are all creative writers when reading, whether or not we ever pen words, for when we read words we create who we are, and shape our relationships with others and the world, if not also other works of art.
I find the easiest way to attune yourself to a book’s rhythm for ‘creative writing purposes’ is by experimenting with different sized reading chunks.
Just as there cannot be two lead dance partners in ballroom dancing you and a book cannot insist on two different rhythms. And since a book cannot change itself for you, we must change ourselves for our books. So follow the rhythm a book leads you with to find it’s natural chunks and dancing style.
Follow the rhythm a book leads you with.
When you read many books simultaneously in chunks your way of looking at reading switches automatically and unconsciously for the better. Slowly but surely all the books you read begin to feel like one book with many diverging stories within it.
Reading this way becomes one long dance composed of many individual chunks, songs, and dance partners.
In the long dance some songs and dance partners are more interesting than others; sometimes a side character, story, or song becomes your new lead; sometimes your lead abandons you; follow your intellectual feet’s urges.
Think, when a good dance instructor teaches beginners how to dance, she does not have novices always use the same partner; she has beginners switch partners frequently.
This ensures that the learned muscle memory is not just specifically triggered by one dance partner under specific conditions.
Frequent partner switching helps each dancer more quickly notice the flaws in their technique when compared to others, which minimizes the learning of bad habits while increasing the rate at which good habits are automatically acquired.
I think similar frequent switching is required for good reading, which is why I’ve encouraged reading many books in chunks simultaneously.
Good reading focuses on the long dance rather than bewitching single sirens who are as dangerous as they are attractive.
Listen to them, learn from them, but do not let them own you.
As Emerson put it:
Reading long at one time anything, no matter how it fascinates, destroys thought as completely as the inflections forced by external causes. Do not permit this. Stop if you find yourself becoming absorbed, at even the first paragraph.12
You are wrong if you think you can’t remember what’s going on in multiple books.
If millions of people, likely including yourself, can cross the street and avoid car-death while keeping track of the notifications on their smartphones; you can remember what’s going on in multiple books.
But if you doubt me, here’s how you can help yourself remember what you read…
4. Keep Track of (and Celebrate) Your Progress through Books
Either keep a reading journal to track and celebrate your reading progress, or use a website like Goodreads.
I use Goodreads as a celebratory “reading journal” because it allows me to easily keep track of whatever page I’m on. Also, whenever you update your page it prompts you to post a ‘status.’ In the status I either summarize what I took away in my own words or find a passage that sums up the chunk.
In place of Goodreads a physical journal also works, and I’ll cover a great way to use this journal in the next section.
Keeping track of your progress helps you easily return to the long dance in a book.
Best of all, keeping track of your progress makes a game out of reading, and if you’re a competitive or self competitive type like myself this inspires further reading.
But, if you’re still worried you can’t remember what’s going on in multiple books there’s another reliable way to aid your reading recall…
5. Create a Reading Digestive Process: “Spoil” Books; Journal; and then Review Books.
When we eat food, we need to digest the nutrients in order for the food to be of use. Likewise with reading, we need ways to digest the nutrients, otherwise we will become backed up, overstuffed, or undernourished by the words we consume.
I think good readers create digestive processes for their readings.
One way I help myself digest my reading better is by “spoiling” a book by repeatedly reading a summary of it on Wikipedia. In the absence of a Wikipedia article I find reading a few books reviews works too.
Digesting and remembering things is mostly about repeating them enough in diverse contexts that regularly interest and matter to you.
You’re more likely to digest, remember, and make a book a part of who you are the more easily you can understand it before you even read it.
This is why when we want to learn a new language we start with its basic vocabulary.
Similarly, I think that when we want to learn from a new book, before we dive in to, it helps to know its basic ‘vocabulary;’ the outlines of its characters, ideas, and arguments. By learning these things in advance, we prepare ourselves to better digest what read.
I’ll have more vivid memories of a book if I take the time to summarize it and the feelings it provoked.
Reviewing forces me to articulate my thoughts to someone else, which requires me to, at least mentally if not physically, go over and rethink the book again, and perhaps, again.
Books reviews are gifts you give your future self.
If this sounds like work, remember -reading is not a passive activity. It’s a sacrificial act that requires constant renewal in the form of your finite attention.
Words won’t read, digest, or turn into action themselves.
As a final digestive aid, I also use a physical reading journal.
When I first started journaling I tried to strictly organize everything in advance. I imagined over the course of years I would collect excellent passages on ‘great topics’ such as, religion, love, friendship, philosophy and so on.
This was sheer pedantry.
The arrogance of this method was stifling. Years later, my old journal remains mostly empty. Not until very recently have I started journaling again, but now with joy and ease.
I have Emerson to thank for this.
You see, in Emerson’s youth he made exactly the same pedantic mistake that I did, he also tried to journal with predetermined subject headings, and he also ended up writing nothing as a result.14
Since I’ve found and adapted Emerson’s mature journaling style for myself I find it is the most reliable way I digest what I read.
Here’s how the mature Emerson journaled:
[Emerson] explained his new system to Elizabeth Peabody, who passed it on in a letter to her brother, George:
‘He advised me to keep a manuscript book and write down every train of thought which arose on any interesting subject with the imagery in which it first came into mind. This manuscript was to be perfectly informal and allow of skipping from one subject to another with only a black line between. After it was written I could run a heading of subjects over the top -and when I wanted to make up an article- there were all my thoughts, ready.’
Emerson should have added -or perhaps Peabody forgot- that you have to index each journal in the back so you can find all the entries on a given subject without having to read through the entire journal each time you want to find something.15
A modified version of Emerson’s mature journaling style is what I use, and if Emerson’s style interests you, I urge you experiment with his way if you want a supremely satisfying way to digest what you read.
But, I want to be repeat myself here, you don’t need to use all, or even any, of my suggested digestive processes. Choose whichever suits you, modify them, or come up with your own entirely different digestive tools.
So long as you digest what you read it does not matter how you do so. All I can offer are the synthetic small and large intestines I’ve found useful. Trust whatever works works for your body.
By now, you hopefully see some ways you could digest what’s going on in multiple books. The natural next question is how to enter the long dance; in other words, how do we figure out what’s worth digesting and remembering in our reading?
6. Learn to Actively Ignore and Forget Boring Stuff
Make your own Bible. Select and collect all those words and sentences that in all your reading have been to you like the blast of a trumpet out of Shakespeare, Seneca, Moses, John and Paul.16
When advising someone who asked him how to read, Emerson once likened reading well to quarrying valuable rocks and minerals from the earth.17This metaphor does a great job of capturing the unavoidable challenge of a vigorous reading habit: there is a tremendous amount of -often useless- raw material for us to digest. We need ways to separate gold from the mere pyrite.
This is why I think good reading is the art of selective forgetting.
I learned this from my freshman high school history teacher.
On the first day of class she gave all of us a sharpie and single page of info on Ancient Athens. She told us we had to decide which half of the page was more ‘important.’ The less relevant half was to be sharpied. This was fun.
After we’d all gleefully redacted some scholars labors our teacher told us we had to select the ‘best’ among the remaining paragraphs. Once again, the losing were to be obliterated via sharpie. Still fun. Finally we had to select the best sentence within the surviving paragraph.
After all our pages looked like top secret briefings with only a sentence spared we to had share what passage we had each individually deemed ‘most important.’
I was astounded.
Almost everyone had chosen the same sentence. Why?
I think its because we all intuitively see the world in terms of stories.
When we read, consciously or no, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, we look for a vivid story. We don’t think in terms of disconnected data.
When we read we look for what’s ‘important’ and stories are how we figure out what’s ‘important.’ So when you read; trust yourself to find the story, it will bring you to the long dance.
Good reading is the art of selective forgetting.
As Emerson put it:
The discerning will read, in his Plato or Shakspeare, only that least part, — only the authentic utterances of the oracle; — all the rest they reject, were it never so many times Plato’s and Shakspeare’s.18
7. Create Stage Directions (via Underlining and Highlighting)
Highlighting or underlining a text is how we quarry; it’s not a chore; it’s a violently fun way of deciding what to forget that keeps you on the rhythm of the long dance.
Below is an example of what it looks like when I’m truly in love with a text, dwelling deeply with it and annotating it to forget the boring stuff as best as I can; this is as good as ‘dancing’ and ‘quarrying’ ever gets for me.
This might look like madness, but there’s a predictable pattern to how I annotate.
Through all these different lines, brackets, and symbols; I’m mapping out the ideas on the page; creating my own ‘stage directions’ so that I can tell at a glance where individual ideas enter, leave, or return.
Creating stage directions wherever you read makes it easier to see the hidden story that shapes the long dance of your reading career; stage directions help you tease out whats ‘important.’
The rhythm of the long dance is only audible when you tune out competing noises; ‘stage directions’ act as personalized ear muffs and hearing aids.
I’m not suggesting you create stage directions with this level of detail all the time, I only do this when an author is speaking directly to my innermost needs as a reader. To always create intense stage directions would be as foolish as never creating them. Create stage directions that serve your needs, not mine, not a teachers, not anyone else’s.
As as favorite writer of Emerson’s, Francis Bacon,19 put it, different texts will require different reading styles from you:
Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.20
Now that we’ve seen some ways to create a reading digestive process, stage directions, and attune ourselves to the rhythm of the long dance I need to say a thing, or three, about ebooks.
8. Try Ebooks (Even if You Love Books with Spines)
An ebook. Do you know the language she’s reading? I don’t!
An e-reader is a paperback sized object that can fit in a back pocket; it lets you carry a library on your person. It’s awesome. But some people take issue with them. I used to be one of these people.
I once only read physical books, so I empathize with the complaints some lovers of physicals books make against their digital kin.
I don’t think either digital or physical reading is better in all ways, which one makes more sense for you depends on your desires.
I urge you to try both and determine for yourself what best works for you. There are some books I only read in print, and others digitally depending on my needs.
Since I’ve made the switch to primarily reading ebooks I’ve found there are only three drawkbacks to reading books digitally rather than in print.
You can’t draw everywhere on e-readers screens. You can only highlight and annotate. Hopefully this will change…
You can’t easily and legally share digital books you’ve bought. There’s DRM that makes sharing your digital library a pain.
You can’t feel the ‘weight’ and wear of a digital book; it lacks a physical history and, therefore, a certain kind of seductive smell, appearance, and presence. This is the most subjective and yet serious complaint. I think that most people, myself included, who sometimes pine for print books are consciously or unconsciously lusting after this essentially erotic element about print books. Digital books can feel like absentee lovers if you grew up having affairs with spined books.
But, as a writer of nonfiction I scoff at these concerns, serious (or not) as they are. The ease with which e-readers can find words, passages, and ideas has revolutionized the way I read (and write.)
E-books let me digitally search for any key word or phrase I require; they make it easier than ever to forget the noise and keep track of the long dance.
I am unimpressed by those who claim that reading on a digital screen creates lazy, unhealthy, distracted readers with poor memories. I recall Socrates saying similarly negative things about the then ‘new’ technology of writing…
[Writing will not aid our memory, instead it] will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. […]
[Writing] will enable [us] to hear many things without being properly taught, and [we] will imagine that [we] have come to know much while for the most part [we] will know nothing.21
I love o’l Socrates, and while he was actually working towards a much deeper point that this excerpt conceals (that I respect and cover here) his initial argument against writing is ridiculous.
While I freely admit to being a more skilled dancer and digester of readings in spined books, a certain Socratic skepticism over the ‘new’ technology is misguided.22
My skill with print books and difficulty with digital is not inherent to either medium. I grew up trained to read spined books, not digital ones.
I’m sure that with enough practice I’ll get as fluent with digital books as I am with the ‘new’ technology of writing. It’ll take years for me, but what skillful practice aiming towards effortlessness doesn’t require time, focus, and personal effort?
I think most arguments against e-readers and their digital kin -especially my own third one- are nonsense on stilts for Luddite sympathizers, such as good o’l Socrates himself. No one’s perfect, we all love what we’re used to.
In the future I imagine digital natives will be just as skeptical of the ‘new’ technology of their era, as our print natives are today, and the oral natives of Socrates’ era were. So it goes…
Most technology, such as writing or e-readers, is just a tool; one that can be used: by native or non native users, with or without skill, for good or bad.
Regardless of your technological preferences I can safely recommend that you…
9. Read Whenever You Can
Keep an e-reader, book, or books on you at all times.
Whenever you find yourself unexpectedly waiting somewhere you can then read rather than become anxious, bored or frustrated.
When other people are late I’m usually grateful; they’ve given me a chance to read.
Latecomers with their uncertain arrival times make my reading feel like an exciting affair of an illicit nature; they inspire me to read rapidly as I don’t know when others will arrive; at any second I could be ‘caught’ reading!
Reading makes for an excellent partner in bed too: I find that reading a chunk after waking up and before sleeping always feels good, even if I only read one paragraph.
In order to enjoy this kind of bite sized reading, you need to, as Stephen King put it: “learn to read in small sips;” because doing so gives you a few more minute long reading sessions snatched from tedium each day, which adds up to many more chunks a year.
The goal is to make reading your fallback position; a habitual mindset rather than something you make time for.
Because when reading becomes a habitual mindset, you’ll find all sorts of ways to slip more bookish affairs into your everyday life.
This brings us to the final and best way on how to read better.
Select the right books books to read.
10. Find Your Literary Friends
If you read the right books by the right people your mind is brought onto a level where you have a nice, mild, slow-burning rapture all the time.23 –Joseph Campbell
I have two ideas if you desire books that create the rapture of the long dance.
You could subscribe to this blog and so get my book reviews by clicking here; if you’re curious what to expect when you read my reviews click here.
Try Goodreads; it has an exceptional reviewing community.
But, these two ideas are insufficient.
Because both are just other people, who don’t know you, giving you reading advice. Good reading advice can only come from a friend who knows you well.
I pursue good reading like I pursue good friendships.
A good friend, and good reading simultaneously do two good and yet paradoxical things:
They empower you to see the world more clearly from a certain perspective.
They challenge you to see the world from a different perspective.
Only a friend can give you reading that both confirms you in the way you see the world, while also challenging you to see it a different and perhaps better way.
As Emerson once said of good reading, but could have also said of good friendship:
In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.24
Good reading and friendship are a balancing act which returns us to ourselves while simultaneously suggesting who we could better become.
I learned a reliable way to create good literary friendships from Joseph Campbell:
When you find an author who really grabs you, read everything they have written.
Don’t say, ‘Oh, I want to know what So-and-so did’ -and don’t bother at all with the best-seller list.
Just read what one author has to give you; after you’ve read their way through their works go and read what they’ve read.
Reading this way opens up the world in a way that is consistent with a certain point of view.
When you go from the one author to another or select your reading from impersonal recommendations, you may be able to tell us the date when each author wrote such and such a poem…
But they haven’t said anything of lasting meaning to you.25
Don’t read something just because its popular, trending, or a classic, only someone with questionable desires befriends someone or some book for such pedantic reasons.
Commit yourself to good friends who know you rather than the whims of a crowd. Life is too short and unpredictable to read a life of ceaseless skipping from one sycophantic acquaintance to another. A few deep literary friendships is worth more than any shelf, bookcase, or library of acquaintances.26
Good friends and good reading act like a mirror in which we can see ourselves reflected.
Choosing the wrong reading can be just as blinding, deafening, and dumbing as a friend who undermines, misleads, and eventually betrays you.
If you’re trying to avoid bad literary friends, consider listening to Emerson’s advice on what not to read:
Avoid all second-hand borrowing books –
‘Collections of —-,’ ‘Beauties of —-,’ etc.
If you have some books like these on your shelves I advise you to burn them.
No one can select the beautiful passages of another for you.
It is beautiful for him-well! Another thought, wedding your own aspirations, will be a thing of beauty for you. Do your own quarrying.27
I’m not saying that you can’t read any selections, summaries or reviews. After all, I just encouraged you to “spoil” books by reading such things.
My point is that it’s dangerous to trust random strangers selections, summaries, or reviews in place of actually reading the text or getting to know someone yourself.
Do the work in your reading and social life, and it is work, to figure out what selections, summaries, and persons you can trust, and how far you can trust them.
As readers we are surgeons operating upon our current self for the sake of our future selves and friends.
So select your reading as carefully as a surgeon selects their tools. The right tools for you will differ from others, so find out what you need for and from your reading.
A good reader reads, in this sense, only for themselves. As Emerson puts it, they always finds ‘passages which seem confidences or asides, hidden from all else, and unmistakably meant for’28 their ear.
There is no orthodox or ‘correct’ or way to read a text. No text is sacred, perfect, or mean’t for everyone. 29
Read carefully, read critically, read to form yourself.30
If you are struggling to find literary friends to dance with because the the long dance is proving elusive, try reading all the works of those that speak to you and then the works that inspired those works.
To sum up, if you would like a way of reading that connects you to others and is also intuitive while simultaneously self refining, use your reading to plant stories and ideas within yourself you wish to eat, dance, and become good friends with.
To Recap the 10 Ways of Reading Better
Read Multiple Books at the Same Time
Read Books in as many Chunks as Possible
Keep Track of (and Celebrate) Your Progress through Books
Read to the Rhythm of the Long Dance
Create a Reading Digestive Process: “Spoil” Books, Journal, and Review Books
Learn to Actively Ignore and Forget Boring Stuff
Create Stage Directions (via Underlining and Highlighting)
Try Ebooks (Even if you Love Books with Spines)
Read Whenever You Can
Find Your Literary Friends
Postscript: For Those Who Want Further Reading on Reading Better
Thanks for reading.
Please comment, criticize, or ask questions below…
Reading is all great and whatever, but I learn best when others ask me questions, so please, ask questions if you’d like I’ll take the time to (eventually) answer.
I might write a review on Richardson’s book focusing on the writing advice it gives, because it’s just as excellent as Emerson’s reading advice. If this interests you, or something else does, do let me know in the comments…
Finally, this is when I (again) invite you to subscribe to this blog by clicking here. Only fabulous footnotes exist after this point!
On Writing mixes the memoirs of Stephen King with his thoughts on best writing practices. He shares his personal writing code, rather than the 10 commandments of writing. This book is for you if you enjoy his second foreword to On Writing:
“This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do- not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less of the bullshit.
One notable exception to the bullshit rule is The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr and E.B. White.
There is little or no detectable bullshit in that book. (Of course, it’s short; at eighty five pages it’s much shorter than this one.) I’ll tell you right now that every aspiring writer should read The Elements of Style. Rule 17 in the chapter titled “Principles of Composition” is “Omit Needless Words.” I will try to do that here.1
With respect to Strunk and White, I tend to prefer the King.
Strunk and White are not present in their Elements of Style. They present sound abstract rules rather than themselves. But you can’t separate King from the rules of On Writing.
When I see the writer and the life behind the words; their suggested rules feel more like a friend’s gentle criticism than a textbook’s stern admonition. On Writing is not a general text book on how to write, it is a memoir from King on he how writes.
King argues that bad writing is often the result of fear rather than inexperience.
King thinks that fear scares writers out of bold and simple sentences. Fear causes writers to abuse equivocations, adverbs, and the passive voice while dancing around their subjects and verbs with needless words.
If good writing is like seduction, as King says, then bad writing is like pick up lines delivered in place of honest conversation.
Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.2
Being swept away by a combination of great story and great writing -of being flattened in fact- is part of every writer’s necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you. 3
If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.4
In general, I found the rest of King’s writing advice sound with one notable exception; on page one King says that there are certain fixed tiers of writers. In King’s taxonomy there are; bad writers, competent writers, good writers and great writers.
A bad writer will always be bad, and competent writer may become good with supreme diligence, but no good writer ever becomes great.
King’s On Writing is pitched at competent and good writers, not the bad or great, because King sees that neither the bad nor great can learn to write properly speaking; their writing skills are fixed, innate, and immutable. I have two questions for King. One, why are bad writers always bad? And second, why can no one become great?
In On Writing, I couldn’t find any place where King answers my first question, he just takes the existence of immutably bad writers for granted. But, thankfully, he does see the need to at least try to explain why he sees that some are immutably great…
No one can become great because, great writers, Shakespeare is an example, are:
geniuses, divine accidents, gifted in a way which is beyond our ability to understand, let alone attain. Shit, most geniuses aren’t able to understand themselves, and many of them lead miserable lives, realizing (at least on some level) that they are nothing but fortunate freaks, the intellectual version of runway models who just happen to be born with the right cheekbones and with breasts which fit the image of an age.5
Either I don’t understand King, or he is being incoherent. In this preceding quote I see two overlapping but incompatible ideas about what makes a writer great. Look closely at this quote and you’ll see it yourself.
Both ideas say that great writers can’t be taught; they are magical geniuses, but they diverge on what exactly the nature of creative genius is. For the sake of clarity, here are the two ideas spelled out explicitly:
Idea 1. Geniuses are naturally gifted and skilled people. They are ‘beyond our ability to understand’ or ‘attain.’
Idea 2. Geniuses are lucky people. They are ‘fortunate freaks’ who fit ‘the image of an age.’
Since King mentions Shakespeare as a great genius, lets see how his career was received to test these two ideas and see which one is closer to the truth.
Just look at those cheekbones.
King isn’t the only one to see Shakespeare as an obvious example of genius, many people do. Which is why it’s interesting to know that Shakespeare wasn’t universally recognized and immortalized as a great genius in his own era, or for quite some time afterwards.6
Idea 1 is in hot water, Shakespeare was more like a ‘fortunate freak’ than someone ‘beyond our ability to understand.’ Shakespeare’s example strongly suggests that we make up who the ‘geniuses’ are by collective consensus, whether or not they do have actual skill. So, Idea 2 (luck) is looking like a better explanation for what makes a ‘genius’ than innate, immutable, and obvious talent.
Skill, practice, and a much larger serving of luck is all you need to explain the successful career of any writer, including the great Shakespeare.
Any writer can improve their craft, however flawed they start, given enough dedicated time, practice, and feedback.
Now it may, of course, be a waste of time for some to write if there are other things they do with more skill, ease, and pleasure. Which, is maybe Kings larger point when he refers to the the immutably bad writer?
In any case, King’s ideas about genius and bad writers were the only major problems I had with On Writing. This problem sticks out, because King’s idea of what kinds of writers can (or can’t) improve is how he opens the first few pages of On Writing. But, I don’t fault King too much for these questionable ideas because King is always at pains to remind the reader that he’s not certain his way of writing or seeing how to write is “the right way.”
King is just sharing what’s worked for him and, if it doesn’t work for us, he’d probably remind us he warned us in the foreword that his writing advice may be all bullshit. And while his ideas about genius and bad writers may be, the rest of the book isn’t.
It is King’s gentle but persistent and respectful tone, his willingness to share his life and his flaws, combined with his idea that good writing is a kind of seductive telepathy that endeared me to his writing advice.