Timeless advice on how to make the most of your books.
Books carry the wisdom of the smartest people who ever existed. Through reading, you find yourself on the surefire way to become happy, healthy, and wise.
Yet, books per se don’t make you a better person.
You can read every day without changing at all. It’s what and how you read that will improve your life’s quality and enhance your mind.
I’ve read a book a week for more than three years and always look for ways to improve my reading practice. Recently, I stumbled upon Arthur Schopenhauer’s essay on reading and books.
Schopenhauer was a philosopher whose writing on morality and psychology has influenced Einstein, Nietzsche, and Freud, among others. Here are his powerful reading insights and how to apply them:
1) Stop Reading Passively
In 1851, Schopenhauer got something right most people still ignore. Books are the arena of someone else’s thoughts, not our own. He writes:
“When we read, another person thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental process.”
Human brains don’t work like recording devices. You don’t absorb information and knowledge by reading. Relying on highlighting, rereading, or, worst of all, passive reading is highly ineffective.
For my first 80 books or so, I was a passive reader. Whenever a conversation revolved around something I read, I could never remember much. I thought forgetting is a personal character flaw.
But it isn’t. Instead, it’s the way we read that’s flawed.
To get the most from books, we need to think for ourselves while reading. Active reading is the way we acquire and retain knowledge.
How to apply it:
Before opening your next book, take a pen to your hand. Scribble your thoughts on the margins and connect what you learn with what you already know.
While reading, think about questions like:
- How can you link the words to your own experiences?
- How can you use the author’s thesis to explain something else?
- Do you have any memory that proves or contradicts what you read?
You store new information in terms of its meaning to our existing memory. To remember new information, you not only need to know it but also to know how it relates to what you already know.
And by scribbling down your own thoughts, you’re doing what cognitive scientists call elaborative rehearsal. You associate new information with what you already know.
Soon you’ll realize that taking notes not only helps you to concentrate but also to remember what you read. That’s how you transform yourself into an active reader.
2) Not Every Book is Worth Your Time
Books aren’t created equal. When looking at current best-seller lists, what Schopenhauer wrote some hundred years ago feels right on point:
“Nine-tenths of the whole of our present literature aims solely at taking a few shillings out of the public’s pocket, and to accomplish this, author, publisher, and reviewer have joined forces.”
A book’s sales numbers don’t say much about its quality. Best-selling authors are primarily great marketers.
When you look at human history, the fundamental human problems are the same in all ages: Justice, happiness, power, love, and change.
And through books, you can connect with people who mastered these areas centuries before. So why bother with the short-cycle of current books?
“A public that will leave unread writings of the noblest and rarest of minds, of all times and all countries, for the sake of reading the writings of commonplace persons which appear daily, and breed every year in countless numbers like flies; merely because these writings have been printed today and are still wet from the press.”
How to apply it:
Knowing what you want to read is essential, but so is its inversion — knowing what you don’t want to read.
Statistically, the chances are small that the best books are written in the current decade. So, look beyond best-seller lists to choose the books you read.
If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking. Instead, follow A.B. Schlegel’s advice, who had also been a guiding star for Schopenhauer:
“Read the old ones, the real old ones. What the new ones say about them doesn’t mean much.”
I love to find ‘the real old ones’ through Mortimer J. Adler’s book recommendations, starting page 175.
3) Develop Your System of Thought
Schopenhauer’s last advice concerns the way we systemize reading:
“Every one has aims, but very few have anything approaching a system of thought. This is why such people do not take an objective interest in anything, and why they learn nothing from what they read: they remember nothing about it.”
Knowledge isn’t power unless it’s applied. And to apply what we read, we must first remember what we learned.
Schopenhauer got right what Harvard scientists confirmed some hundred years later:
“It is only by reflection that one can assimilate what one has read if one reads straight ahead without pondering over it later, what has been read does not take root, but is for the most part lost.”
When we don’t pause to think and to contemplate, we keep circling in a limited sphere at a higher velocity. We can read a book a week to 10x our productivity and still lose the most important life lessons.
Like Mortimer J. Adler said: “In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.”
How to apply it:
Don’t focus on the number of books you read, but on your reading depth.
Use your margin notes to create a summary. Keep it brief and use your own words. Depending on your preference, here’s what you can do with it:
- Keep your summaries analog in your journal.
- Post them publically on GoodReads, Bookshlf, or your blog.
- Create your personal knowledge database in Notion or Roam.
Summarizing, synthesizing, analyzing a book might feel like slowing you down. But the opposite is true. Learning works best when it feels slow and difficult.
The One Thing Schopenhauer Was Wrong About
While most of his advice is timeless, he holds one flawed assumption. In his words:
“One can overload and choke the mind by giving it too much nourishment.”
You can never over nourish your brain. The opposite is true. The more you learn, the easier it’ll be to remember. As cognitive scientists write in this paper:
“Our capacity for storing to-be-learned information or procedures is essentially unlimited. In fact, storing information in human memory appears to create capacity — that is, opportunities for additional linkages and storage — rather than use it up.”
Retrieval, the process of accessing your memory, is cue dependent. This means the more mental links you’re generating during stage one, the acquisition phase, the easier you can access and use your knowledge.
The more connected information we already have, the easier we learn.
Acting on Schopenhauer’s insights isn’t complex, long, or exhausting.
On the contrary: These principles make reading fun and worthwhile and help you get the most from books.
- Become an active reader by taking notes while you read.
- Know what not to read. Don’t waste your time on mediocre books.
- Systemize your thinking by creating a personal knowledge base.
Instead of feeling discouraged by all the ideas about what you could do to improve your reading, enjoy experimenting at your own pace. Keep the ideas that work for you and screw the rest.
Choose one or two new principles until you find a pattern that helps you on your journey to health, wealth, and wisdom.
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