Vinay Varma is a senior management consultant with focus on strategy, planning, processes and systems. He has previously worked in the areas of strategic planning, business development, corporate communications, IT product design and research. He is also a multidisciplinary scholar with an eclectic range of interests, and reads extensively. Here, he talks about the reading habit and how best to make use of it.
Picture this: You walk-in to meet an advocate at his/her office. The neat shelves of identical-looking, hardbound law books covering acts and precedents that adorn an advocate’s library announce the advocate’s specialized expertise without asking. They are an intimidating announcement of the mastery of a specialist.
However, uneven book collections of used and new books, tattered and shining books, of all shapes, sizes, colours, covers, and topics, well organized or lying haphazard in active use, adorning either classy wooden bookshelves or messy metal racks, have their own charm. They give you an idea of the kind of person you are interacting with and the kind of conversations you can have. And it is easy to figure out what you share in common by having a look at someone’s bookshelf. Sometimes as good as reading a CV, conducting an interview or administering a psychometric test. All you need is that one book, author or topic of interest that can open a conversation. Books, like many other things, are good conversation starters and lead to enriching conversations, sometimes enduring personal friendships.
Let me turn from this to the unexpected – demolishing the case for over-veneration of books before building the case for it: Not having a library at home or office is in no manner a disqualification. Character, competence or wisdom depend not so much on books but rather how you acquire, synthesize and apply knowledge in life, whether you acquire it through books or by any other means. The ancient sages and philosophers passed on their knowledge orally to listeners. Their wisdom endures even though it preceded books. Our first books were written down oral discourses, myths, lore, sayings. They endure because they are based on a strong grasp of the eternal and deep observation of and reflection on the life-world.
A widespread reading culture required the arrival of printing as Marshall McLuhan explains in The Gutenberg Galaxy. Knowledge preceded books. So it’s not about books per se, but knowledge and understanding, with books being a useful means. Books aren’t the sole means to grow wise or knowledgeable, nor a sure means. And reading the wrong books – inadequately thought through, poorly researched, high on fantasy and speculation or biased – can actually delude you. Don’t disparage the non-bookish person if they are wise or you can learn something from them. The point of being a scholar is to help people and not to become the kind of contemptuous intellectual snob that inspires public contempt for intellectuals.
Have conversations with lots of people from all walks of life about ground realities and refine the knowledge you gain from books. Do hands on problem-solving in work and life contexts. Observe and reflect on yourself and the world. Practice constant introspection and extrospection. See what works, what doesn’t in life, what holds true, what doesn’t in the world and revalue theory through practical experience and application. Combine theoria and praxis to arrive at integral gnosis. Make your life a mix of vita contemplativa and vita activa. Use books as supplement and not as a substitute for immersion in life and work.
Now contrast this with the stereotype of the ivory tower intellectual: Many live deluded lives after reading too much. The tragedy of the bookish man who can’t understand or cope with the world is captured in Elias Canetti’s novel, Auto-da-Fé. Umberto Eco in his novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, similarly describes the tragic consequence of self-fulfilling conspiracy theories of three imaginative people working in a publishing house. Umberto Eco himself had a legendary library of over 60,000 books. He knew. Peter Knight, a professor at the University of Manchester and author of Conspiracy Culture links wild conspiracy theories to reading too much literature or fiction. Probably literature students look for plots and motives where there are none. One might as well add liberal arts to that.
Theories simplify reality into concepts, categories, schemata, frameworks and explanations. Reality always exceeds and eludes theory and is far more complex. A historian or sociologist will pick a set of causes to explain an event. In reality there are more than theory can grasp. A political thinker will take up the cause of X but de-humanize Y. And while a psychologist will give psychological explanations for crime, a sociologist will give social ones, an economist economic ones and an anthropologist cultural ones.
Research the number of theories to explain crime, mental illness, inequality, recession or a historical event like The French Revolution. The range of explanations for same thing can be pretty high. Theories, methods, disciplines are merely different ways of looking at cosmic complexity by slicing it in different ways. One way of looking or slicing doesn’t suffice but pushes you into a thinking rut, which is why it significantly improves your thinking to learn from multiple disciplines, sub-disciplines, schools of thought, ideologies, theories, analytical methods and also by observing, experiencing, reflecting, applying and testing besides listening to people’s stories. This warning is important to bear in mind.
Knowledge is a double edged sword that cuts both ways. Reading books can turn you into a powerhouse of knowledge and understanding for the benefit of self and society or place you in a prison of deluded thinking and become your flight from reality. Do you read to escape into the comfort of your delusions and reinforce your ill-informed convictions about reality or to liberate, empower yourself, grow in awareness and be really useful to the world?
It is not a matter of reading lots of books, though that can help if you read right. It is a matter of the method of choosing, reading and profiting from books – reading the right books and the best books, relating those to life, applying the learnings, and judging books and authors in turn based on your life experiences going beyond mere passive admiration and veneration to question and challenge the very books and authors you love most in order to form your own independent opinions.
What you read, why you read, how you read and how much you read depend on whether you read for profit (academic non-fiction) or pleasure (literature and light non-fiction). Both are valid objectives, but I will speak of reading for profit here as that is my forte. Pleasure has its place but it doesn’t grow the mind and there are other means like films and music for that. Reading also depends on the kind of reading culture and social milieu you are exposed to. Your interests are also bound to change with twists and turns in your life and work, which place both constraints on knowledge acquisition and new demands on knowledge-seeking in areas where you have been lacking.
A reader is never only a reader. Rather reading occupies a shifting space in life, shrinking, expanding, and changing shape and direction. Life always comes first. Family and friendships, demand their own time. Sometimes simply having lots of friends to converse with or a spouse and children to pay attention, eats into your leisure for reading and much else. Formal education and work occupy centre stage for a significant part of our lives. These place their own demands on what you should be reading to further your academic or professional growth as well as how much leisure you really have for reading what you want. Where you work and study matters and your access to privileged education at premier institutions can be limited by class constraints. Finances and access to books you want to read, and public or academic libraries place other constraints. Social access to a nurturing intellectual milieu is another constraint. Changes in health and disruptions in life or work can disrupt your reading plans. These constraints are real for most people and can’t merely be wished away by determination. Accept these.
No one can master everything but everyone can master better. That’s how it should be. You don’t really have to live to read. You read to live, work, understand and be valuable to self and others. Some people read specifically to write (whether books or articles) or to teach. But not all avid readers need to follow that path. Your reading will reflect subtly in the person you become and the way you tackle life, work, relationships and citizenship even if your life is far removed from academics, journalism and the creative fields.
Within the shape-shifting but limited space reading occupies in life one can control and shape one’s reading to make the most profitable use of it in tune with one’s life goals. The key is one’s goals. These are always personal. Another person cannot dictate your goals and shouldn’t even if they can. Nor the terms for reaching those goals. These goals centre around your dreams and values, and keep changing for you as you evolve, understand, suffer and grow. So a recommended path for one kind of reader might seem pedantic to another.
What I describe here is distilled from my own path and my personal drive and ambition to become a multidisciplinary scholar. It will be most useful for those who read primarily for scholarship or building an academic career, followed by those whose professional work is less specialized and more integrative like journalists and senior management professionals. It will be useful for creative people as well. Wide reading helps ground your creative ideas with a touch of realism and depth of insight rather than merely a wild imagination. When novelists or film-makers research every detail, the work is more impressive. Another scholar might have a different take and that is just as fine.
Your life and your aspiration should shape your reading. But within the flows of life shaping your reading interests and habits apply a little more purpose, structure and method to benefit the best from the activity of reading rather than read without purpose. And all these are related – life, work, citizenship and what you read. Here, I will try to explain the method – what to read and how to read.
Breadth and Depth
I am a generalist both as a scholar and as a manager, though not ‘master of none’. Others are absolute masters in one niche area. They take a deep craftsperson’s pride in being specialists. Both kinds of people have their place in life and work. We need specialists to solve particular problems requiring intense application of extreme knowledge and skill but also generalists to stitch everything together. No one would want to employ someone who is half-mason, half-tailor. But people will employ someone who is a very good mason but can also do a bit of carpentry, electrical repair, plumbing, whitewashing, drain repair, motor repair and tank cleaning, on the side, as such a person will become a single point resource for house repairs. Broad-basing knowledge and skills is to be understood in this sense – being exceptionally good at a few things and reasonably good at many. There are benefits in being a jack of trades, never mind the proverb. Otherwise there would be no need for CEOs in management, no role for entrepreneurs and leaders, no role for a PM above a council of ministers, or editorial journalists who digest academic thought and make it accessible to laypersons by relating it to current affairs contexts.
Broad reading habits like broad management skills help you integrate, make more neural connections, analyse problems from multiple angles, see interconnections and interdependencies, and ultimately come up with more rounded ideas and robust solutions, ensuring that nothing falls between the tables into a knowledge or skill blackhole.
Whether you should be a generalist or specialist however has to do with your goals. No one becomes a perfect generalist. At best one becomes multidisciplinary and multifunctional. Few can insulate themselves as strict specialists either. But there are advantages in terms of value you bring to others by striking a balance between breadth and depth based on your goals. The key is the value you bring and not success which depends on externalities like access to opportunities besides your moral comfort in following various paths to success of which there are many ranging from good to bad to ugly. There are benefits of breadth of reading as much as in acquiring a broad basket of professional and life skills.
There are benefits of being a specialist too. Focus in one area leads to extraordinary mastery in that area and ensures your bread and butter. People figure out more easily how to spot and utilize a specialist in one area than a specialist in too many areas or an all-rounder. With generalists people sometimes can’t figure out what they are really good at and may either be very suspicious or sceptical of their claims (jack of all trades, therefore master of none or impostor) or keep trying to force fit them into something which is not even remotely connected to their professional history, work profile, aspiration, interest or motivation.
Even if you are a multidisciplinary scholar or a cross-domain expert, you may need to position yourself as a specialist in a narrow area to make it easy for people to comprehend and give you work. As more people are specialists, the normal process of social perception tends to be biased towards ‘figuring out your specialization’ rather than noticing your range. Though on the plus side you have the flexibility of pitching different knowledge and skill areas to different clients or employers based on their needs. You can also change more easily from one career to another, or one job role to another in the same organization, based on your aspirations, opportunity, demand, labour supply, competition and wage fluctuations in the job market. That makes you anti-fragile in our VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) world.
Reading for Work
If there are no growth benefits of widening your sphere of mastery, nobody will try, right? Many academic scholars read in an area of specialisation, which is necessary to gain high level of mastery and get a teaching or research job but on the flip side that limits your thinking, especially your ability to form a wide range of interconnections between knowledge culled from different disciplines to understand and solve problems. As an academician it will benefit you to read as much of as many disciplines to gain breadth of understanding while keeping the necessary intensive focus on your specialization for depth. As a manager knowing management theory and various aspects of business from marketing to operations to finance, but also academic disciplines that have an indirect bearing on solving human, business and cultural problems like psychology, sociology, economics, anthropology, law, game theory, research methodology and design. As an advocate for social change you ought to have a grasp of multiple disciplines if you do not want to seem a mere clueless sloganeer. As a journalist you ought to read more not less than an academic specialist as you have to write on a wide range of topics.
If you visit a psychiatrist as you are suffering from severe depression due to unemployment and bad finances he or she will try to fix your brain. That doesn’t solve much except give you some temporary feel good factor quite like listening to a guru or spending your day reading inspiration quotes or literature, and won’t last if the crisis deepens. The solution is to push yourself to get work. Friends, relatives, colleagues or mentors providing referrals are better in such situations than a shrink. The depression will disappear once you have work. But the psychiatrist will try to solve the problem according to his or her discipline not what you need in the situation. That’s the limitation of being a specialist in problem-solving.
While junior executives and middle managers can pass by reading little outside literature or their professional specialization, happy in the routine of doing the same things eternally the same way, you will often find that senior managers generally read a lot in a wide range of areas, in their search for answers, because they have more complex problems to tackle. Sometimes they read more than many a smug laidback professor teaching from the same class notes for years, though they may be a little haphazard and buzz-driven without a proper map to guide them to the best books to read that an academic scholar would have.
The same rule applies to skills, which are neither as divorced from theoretical knowledge nor from other knowledge and skill areas as one assumes. A specialist in programming algorithms may know nothing about psychology of consumption, consumer behaviour, statistical modelling, demand forecasting, market forecasting, accounting procedures or optimized business processes. That makes for a ‘coding brain’. The software engineer who excels is one who immerses in knowledge-seeking in a range of relevant areas that have a bearing on designing and developing a good application for the market.
A designer or programmer may know nothing about management, finance or marketing, and fail as a businessperson trying to run a design or software startup. Sometimes managers don’t know anything about aesthetics or art and ruin good design with terrible feedback. This happens so often as to constitute design lore. If you have read every classic of management because you are a corporate manager but have not touched psychology, sociology, social psychology, group dynamics, economics, and corporate law you are missing something. Dealing with humans and money, require some understanding of these as well.
If you read all the acts and statutes and court judgements as a lawyer or judge but barely touch jurisprudence, beyond what you read at law school, you miss the very foundation of law. Understanding human rights and legal safeguards to protect these rights require an understanding of jurisprudence. If you have read a lot of political thought but nothing of human psychology, economics, world history or jurisprudence, and go about advocating social change and economic policy as a feisty public intellectual clueless about how economy and human behaviour work, you will be a disservice to society in your desire to help it. You will try to solve through politics problems that cannot be solved through state action or the strong arm of law and create more injustice than you remove from society.
And you will be a better architect if you have a knowledge of anthropology, behaviour science, economics, geography, geology, soil science, meteorology, climatology, topography, thermodynamics, ventilation, lighting, acoustics, alternative energy, finance and civil engineering technology besides knowledge of architecture, aesthetics and design.
Reading to Live
Neither professional challenges nor life problems will always come with a special regard for specializations or silos. They will often be complex and require knowing something beyond what you already know. Let me take a few examples from life situations, outside work, where you won’t have the luxury of positioning yourself as a specialist.
You are suddenly threatened with a false court case by some criminals coveting your property. This isn’t as improbable a thing to happen as it seems. Perjury often pays as bad laws exist and are amenable to blackmail use. Knowing basic laws of the country and legal process however will help you deal with them calmly without a frantic, stressed search for an advocate. Even if the way law operates in reality is very different from on paper, knowing laws will give you an edge in charting the difficult conversation without panic when threatened. How you negotiate the first conversation will determine whether the problem will grow or be nipped in the bud. Helplessness gives the clue to an enemy that they can play the game to their advantage.
And controlling panic in situations of crisis goes beyond the example above. Do you panic? If so you will also panic and get stressed when a family member falls ill, a different life situation, far more common. The stress can make you fall sick instead of keeping you strong enough to support and care for the sick, compounding rather than solving the crisis. Building a non-panicky personality requires will training. That takes you into disciplines like psychology, philosophy and religion that provide the answers. And yes, not panicking helps you manage every office or business crisis with ease.
In a personal life crisis, it might help to delve in philosophy, religion and spirituality. Maybe also psychology for better understanding of self and others. Anxiety about future may take you into astrology. But unless you want to be an astrologer, you may just as well abandon it when the anxiety subsides and shift to reading something else related to your aspirations or interests
Some early knowledge of nutrition science and human biology will help you mitigate, avert or postpone many crippling middle and old age health problems. And these will come whether you want it or not and it is merely a question of ensuring that they do not hit you too early or too powerfully to disrupt your most productive phase.
Basic knowledge of accounting, finance, stock trading, banking and tax laws will help you manage your money better and survive crises like unemployment, divorces, ill-health. Some knowledge of passive income multipliers will help supplement your income and avoid single source dependency. Much unnecessary suffering happens because many people have little financial literacy and are caught in financial hell when the job or business goes.
Knowledge of psychiatry and psychology will help you treat your own depression but also understand others better and see through them. Knowing a bit of psychology, social psychology, game theory, group dynamics and even linguistics will help you manage pressures for social conformity and see through manipulative people. Knowing these will also help you in sales, marketing, design, and management.
Knowing a bit of logic, rhetoric, propaganda theory, persuasion theory, rhetorical analysis, discourse analysis, narrative analysis, statistics and social science methodology will help you cut through shoddy arguments and shoddy empiricism and also state your own views better besides see through much clever nonsense in public discourse.
And even fringe disciplines like art theory, film theory, music theory, poetics, performance theory or literary theory will help you derive more value out of your leisure and entertainment activities besides write better reviews.
Reading for Citizenship
Let me take a few examples from another area all of us are a part of where the need for knowledge is most neglected – citizenship. Try recalling the number of times you have heard someone pontificating that such and such government regulation or policy will solve economic problems, the problem of crime in society, social injustice or human suffering and index that to the number of years you have spent on earth in a crime-free, corruption-free society with no economic or life problems, full justice and equality, and nobody desiring to be better than others, happy in egalitarian poverty. Why can’t you see through the bluff? Because you have not observed or reflected well nor studied history or nature very deeply, you cannot understand what has been constant in it.
Many people whose only sources of knowledge are mass media, public intellectuals, feisty activists or demagogues automatically assume that state action is the solution to all problems of the world and state controls the economy as its subset. State can’t effectively control how economy behaves even in totalitarianism. Governments can easily destroy a well-functioning economy through bad policies, excessive taxation, deficit financing, bad business laws, but have limited leverage to repair the damage as economy isn’t the function of governance alone but has as much to do with the kind of decisions a whole lot of stakeholders take, besides the effects of shifts in demand and supply or resources, money and labour, world politics and technological changes, to put it briefly.
Once a recession sets in for whatever reason everyone squeezes. When everyone is individually squeezing creating a ripple effect, a vicious circle sets in, the recession deepens and it continues unabated with every policy that further weakens business, investor and consumer confidence in spending. Governments can partly address such wariness in spending through confidence building measures. But plain greed for irrationally high RoI is something governments cannot address. Nor can a businessperson be rationally expected not to take advantage of labour displacing automation when available. Nothing is as easy as it seems. There are many such conundrums in economics.
Again, anyone who knows a little economics knows that the problem of inflation and the problem of unemployment cannot be solved simultaneously and deficit financing or debt as an approach to government spending weakens the currency and cancels the gains through high inflation. Further, while capitalism left to itself succumbs to high greed and consumerism, leading to sharp inequality over time, and laissez faire or trickle down don’t always work, government plunder of economy for redistribution kills the capital available to fuel growth and ensure high prosperity for everyone, for short-term equality, making everyone equal and poor. Populist governments drive countries to ruin by playing robber barons as economist Mancur Olson said, using demagoguery to keep citizens happy while plundering economy through kickbacks and graft. And it takes entrepreneurship cultures to fuel growth as David Landes has researched, and not a parent caretaker state of infantilized citizens. An intelligent citizen armed with some knowledge of economics knows that economy works in a balance between extremes of libertarian laissez faire and socialist crippling and will know where to put his or her vote on economic policy.
Crimes likewise very often have an impulse or ‘spur of the moment’ factor and stricter laws really cannot curb impulse crimes – those that happen on the spur of the moment when some individuals somewhere get carried by sudden intense emotions or passions like fear, anger or panic, or influence of alcohol. Death for murder has existed since most ancient times and so has murder. Stricter laws can of course mitigate deliberative crimes. However sometimes such laws also become means criminals use for blackmailing and harassing innocents with false cases or perjury. Again stricter laws contribute to greater deliberation in crime, tampering of evidence or rigging of the legal system, to avoid getting caught. Crime solving isn’t as easy as feisty activists try to convince the public. But you wouldn’t touch that textbook on criminology you saw in a library for years while spending endless useless hours to arrive at incensed opinions through opinionated editorials and feisty TV debates.
Again, the contemporary legal system has evolved from more barbaric and ad hoc systems of the past by building legal safeguards to ensure innocents don’t bear the brunt of law. When you get agitated about every incident of horrible crime and make demands for more draconian legislation including demanding death or life imprisonment for everything, making everything non-bailable, shifting the burden of proof of innocence onto the accused, and diluting the law of evidence to improve conviction rate, you compromise the very legal system and centuries of humanism-driven evolution of legal safeguards to protect human rights. You do little to control crime except scapegoat the non-crafty petty criminal who gets easily caught. You push criminals into organized crime, which happens when criminals try to offset the power of law to catch and convict them. Criminals commit additional crimes to avoid getting caught or eliminate evidence. You also make citizens extremely vulnerable to perjury for blackmail or vengeance and build a police state.
But take public discourse about crime, and it is mostly irrational. If you don’t know criminology or jurisprudence, you will have two solutions for all crime: ‘Hang!’ or ‘Life’. And many will demand justice, equality, freedom for their favorites, ignoring the same rights for the opposite party. What is needed are better laws not ineffective or counter-effective draconian laws, a better judicial system, better policing and above all a better society. But how many know the principles of jurisprudence? Every citizen should.
Bad journalists or activists also talk in terms of crimes per minute. But that is just a bad way of measuring crime. 100 murders per minute has a different meaning in a non-populous country like Iceland as compared to a dense, populous country like India. If you know a bit of statistics, you will realize crimes are best indexed to per unit population per year and not time alone and crimes per minute is just manipulative scaremongering rhetoric.
Many citizens also have no understanding of what is national interest because they completely ignore geopolitics and its role in weakening their country and pay more attention to short-term electoral benefits which may make the nation and civilization unstable in the long run. By wanting the best for themselves or their identity group in short-term, citizens may bequeath a ruined nation to haunt their progeny. Your own children and grandchildren will inherit a more dangerous and unsafe world. If you don’t know the history of geopolitics, you will slip into being its pawn against your own country.
Knowing a bit of ethology, animal psychology, evolutionary biology, sociobiology and world history will also save you the trouble of wasting your life trying to build static, postcard perfect utopias which will inevitably fail as human beings will not behave according to your ideals and ideas but according to their needs, wants, instincts and drives.
Many citizens also do not know how to judge media articles or a TV anchor’s commentary if the person reinforces their unexamined emotions. They do not ask for hard data – historical or statistical. Journalists often have the habit of creating ‘climate of public opinion’ based on statistically ridiculous samples of 5-10 interviewed people. That’s propaganda and seems convincing only if you don’t know statistics.
Ideologically biased historians devoted to politics more than history project conspiracy theories of present conflicts onto remote past by claiming that some god or goddess killing a supernatural demon in some myth is proof that present oppression of some group is millennia old or sime race invasion and the present oppressed are descendants of that mythical demon trying to make a history of oppression seem far deeper than it actually is to aggravate present conflicts. Anyone who knows historical method will know that such arguments are fantasy historical fiction for political propaganda purposes and not professional historiography and won’t fall for it. History requires hard empiricism. But you need knowledge of historical method to see through the bluff.
Much of correct thinking in politics depends on how much of politics itself, geopolitics, economics, law, human behaviour and history you know. Knowing a bit of everything is essentially a good thing. Life, citizenship and work are three areas where knowledge of philosophy and social sciences is useful and only in work can you to some extent benefit by being a specialist.
How much of a balance you strike between breadth and depth is up to you. If you aspire to a life of a specialist go for more depth and lesser breadth, while taking care to learn whatever outside your field impacts your field and helps you deliver better in your field. Interdisciplinary and cross-functional would suffice. You can reverse the process by starting with depth and add breadth over years. However, in life and citizenship, it helps to know a bit of everything necessary.
If you aspire to be a polymath or all-rounder, you may focus on breadth, while taking care that you are a deep expert in at least a few areas, that is multidisciplinary and multi-skilled. The ideal way to read is by going for breadth before depth. The big picture or Gestalt first. That helps you escape tunnel vision, echo chambers or mistaking your piece of the jigsaw puzzle for the ocean of knowledge.
Researching Books to Read
Researching best books to read is an important activity many readers neglect. It has its own discipline. Going by word of mouth suggestions, latest buzz, down a rabbit hole or going in circles reading works of a mutual admiration society of thinkers who have the same things to say, is pretty common but has its pitfalls. The general reading public devotes too much time and energy to the most useless books. Even lists of ‘books to read before you die’ or ‘greatest books’ tend to be heavily filled with novels galore.
Begin with a map to plan your travels. One can travel without maps but you optimize with a map. Start by gaining a rudimentary knowledge of what different disciplines do. Follow it up by gaining discipline level overviews through encyclopaedias, subject histories, textbooks, handbooks, readers, subject dictionaries or biographical dictionaries. Then go for greater depth in what interests you most or what you want to be your bread and butter – which disciplines, sub-disciplines, schools of thought, thinkers, theories, methods and books.
Once you have a map, your mind will intuitively know the most fertile ideas and thinkers that align to your interests. From there you proceed to reading the classics of thought, reading the most interesting ones cover-to-cover and the rest through secondary, selective or speed reading.
Classics vs. Bestsellers
Classics in any discipline or genre should be given greater importance that whatever rolls ‘hot’ off the press. With contemporary works we are always in the risk of mistaking the buzz, hype or rave reviews for lasting worth and end up getting lost in the maze of ‘current affairs’ rather than grasping the eternal truths or reading the best works.
Good books have an eternal value. Plato and Aristotle wrote more than 2000 years ago and have influenced two millennia of thinking. The same holds true for scriptures and myths. Their power lies in their ability to communicate across endless generations even though the world changes beyond recognition every few decades, as it happens in our fast-paced world. Whatever only addresses the present gets irrelevant over time. The most hyped book sinks into oblivion quite like the day’s news.
Coming closer, leaving aside the ancients and medievals, we have modern disciplines. But whatever merely reacts to the world and circumstances of the author, such as some reflection about a transient minor public crisis, fades. What hold ground are landmark works that shape the future of each discipline. Consider Francis Fukuyama and his end of history. Didn’t happen. That was the end of Fukuyama instead. Consider Ravi Batra and his end of capitalism. Didn’t happen. Batra faded away. Consider Thomas Friedman and his eulogy to globalisation. Globalisation has started breaking up too.
Even with enduring works like scriptures, what endures is the grasp of eternal truths or the more philosophical part of scriptures, that is, the eternal reflections on life, world, and suffering along with core spiritual beliefs, rites and rituals of worship and spiritual conduct of life and stories of divine mystery. Old social injunctions for regulating society, appealing to divine sanction for legitimacy, change as they are not eternal. What seemed very important to the preservation of society to the ancients or medievals may now seem anachronistic. It is the eternal that must be understood first.
Current affairs isn’t eternity. This doesn’t mean you should lag behind in reading, though a distance of a couple of decades is a good yardstick as it allows the hype surrounding a book to settle down. A good author or thinker will still be read after decades. The best after centuries or millennia. Though some really good thinkers may sink unnoticed due to poor publicity, distribution or marketing and you may discover them serendipitously.
Generally, the same holds true for fiction, poetry, music or cinema. Some works sink with time. Some endure. Those that endure speak to eternity. But here unlike philosophy and social sciences one may go quite with the buzz as the objective is often relaxation, though there are benefits of pursuing classics.
Nevertheless, one should be aware of new developments in various disciplines of interest to stay abreast and also read a few books that are fresh out of the press and represent the latest developments, as that is important too if you don’t want to sound like a troglodyte, but not at the cost of completely neglecting foundational works.
Quality and Quantity
What you read matters before how much you read, but both matter. Quality precedes quantity. Quality ensures that you read what grows your mind rather than diminish it. Quantity ensures that as you read more, you grow your mind further. I can fill my mind with penny dreadfuls, dime novels, fantasy fiction, science-fiction, chicklits, cheap romantic novels, whodunits, bad sophomoric free verse, fluffy and peppy inspiration and self-help books, or opinionated books on current affairs and politics and read like crazy, but attain no significant growth whatsoever in knowledge, awareness, deeper understanding, wisdom or analytical ability even if I read hundreds of books cover-to-cover, and thousands by speed reading.
Some people like saying they read a lot, ‘Reading is my passion,’ but the only thing they seem to read are a whole lot of novels, poetry, celebrity biographies and fluffy self-help or inspiration books. Use of ‘passion’ to explain why you do things is a red herring about irrationality and lack of clear goals. Reading too much shallow literature, especially whatever is hot off the press, isn’t a good thing. It’s of the same value as watching too many films or listening to too many songs. Soothing, but not necessarily enlightening. Only deeply reflective literature grows your mind. In any case it is more economical on your time to experience a good story as a three-hour film rather than spend a week reading some mediocre novel.
Needing too much inspiration isn’t good either. You need to carry on with living rather than keep figuring out how to live, carry on with work rather than keep figuring rules for success, prosperity or happiness. Reading too much of those things give you the feeling of being very wise but merely make you sophomoric.
You need not necessarily be a polymath but it is gaining knowledge of academic disciplines that grows the mind. And to understand how to solve human problems better than others, one must read widely and deeply in philosophy and social sciences. I can’t underemphasize this. Sometimes people rhetorically ask what is the use of reading philosophy or learning mathematics. These are foundational to sciences and social sciences which in turn are foundational to practical disciplines that guide work and life.
While fiction and poetry do help you relax, gain emotional understanding and sensitivity, and in best cases understand real life complexity and nuance, transcending the reductive nature of many theories, it is generally non-fiction that pushes up knowledge, awareness, understanding, analytical skills, mastery and real life problem-solving ability.
Ideological Biases and Tunnel Vision
One important aspect of reading philosophy and social sciences is ideological bias. Ideology creeps in two ways – what you read and how you read. Some people read strictly according to a tunnel vision based on moral, cultural, religious and political convictions and read nothing that upsets their cherished convictions. Others treat the most mediocre and shoddy work that meets their ideology with blind reverence, questioning nothing and the most profound work that challenges their views with nit-picking contempt aimed at tearing it down through ‘critique’ using some minor flaw, straw man or ad hominem to discredit everything. This makes for a lifelong bad reading habit if it gets crystalized in youth and it shrinks rather than grows the mind over time.
One cannot escape ideological convictions as a human, and one cannot always be neutral in politics but sacrificing objectivity in scholarship and letting ideology decide reading can be crippling when you are young and haven’t experienced much life independently to perceptively judge good and bad theories and ideologies based on complex real life experiences that upset the neatness of ideologies and theoretical frameworks.
When young one should make it a point to read books and authors from a range of ideological viewpoints including ones you hate, suspending prejudice while reading, with the aim of understanding before rejecting, except for authors or works you find really trashy, shoddy or mediocre to which you need not pay false respect.
Open your mind fully wide first before judging and arriving at convictions. The point is to arrive at convictions not through the shortcut of academic brainwashing or emotional hunches and impressions but through a long process of not just reading but observing, experiencing and reflecting on life and the world. Strong convictions are best postponed to middle age when you have sufficient experience to be objective, rather than crystalized in youth and dogmatically defended without change until old age. A person who doesn’t change convictions much between youth and old age is also the person who has stopped observing, reflecting and thinking. Open yourself fully to paradoxa before arriving at doxa.
Knowing the central value concerns of all ideologies helps you properly appreciate the entire gamut of values that are the foundation of civilization and what humanity really cares about rather than what intellectuals, activists and politicians want humanity to care about.
Reading across one ideology to opposite ideology will help you think beyond ‘my ideology is best’ to seeing all ideologies as merely movements situated in the great dialectic of history as Geist actualizing itself. That is, not as lifetime absolutes to defend to the extreme point of insanity or inanity but positions to take in a given historical context to resolve the epoch’s most critical contradictions for the necessary movement towards a clearer future. This helps you take a more nuanced and balanced position while staying committed.
That was what to read or how to be a good scholar. A few words about the process of reading.
Cover-to-Cover vs. Selective or Speed Reading
Life is too short for reading all the good books as they say, so if you insist on reading cover-to-cover you will at best read a couple of thousand books. Reading some cover-to-cover and some selectively or fast allows you to read a great deal more. Same goes for secondary reading, which helps you know about more thinkers and their theories than you can read first-hand.
Books that are rich in insights, strong in dense interconnected arguments, have difficult jargon and syntax deserve to be read cover-to-cover. Speed reading also doesn’t work with fiction or poetry because a novel, for example, is all about immersion. Books that are superficial, badly written, have endless data, examples or anecdotes to drive home a thesis of a few sentences deserve to be speed read or skimmed. Just focus on the key theses and the key arguments. Certain books like anthologies or readers, dictionaries, encyclopaedias, textbooks, handbooks, collected essays, poems or stories are not meant for cover-to-cover reading by intention.
The second aspect is purpose. When you read to write an academic research paper, class assignment, dissertation or media article, or to prepare for an exam or a lecture, you are constrained for time and yet need to do a good job of scholarship. There secondary reading or speed reading with the objective of picking citations, theories or arguments that support your theses helps. But if you are reading at leisure, the objective is to gain knowledge and also depth. There slow reading helps.
If you read too superficially your bluff isn’t going to work on anyone who has read in depth. Some students, professors, journalists, intellectuals overdo superficial reading to pose as erudite – just dropping names, based on very little secondary reading or mere hearsay. But the bluff shows. Such as when journalists use the word ‘deconstruction’ as a substitute for ‘critique’ or ‘analysis’ without knowing it’s meaning (deconstruction isn’t philosophy for kids but a complex method) or they know nothing about Marshall McLuhan’s theories other than the phrase ‘global village’ which is not McLuhan’s main or original contribution at all or when they call any wild, speculative interpretation or analysis ‘semiotics’ or ‘hermeneutics’.
Reading Fast, Reading Slow
The best works are read systematically, slow or fast, but paced with the objective of comprehending. If you are not constrained or in a hurry, reading cover-to-cover is usually better. Books where the argument is very dense or where the syntax is dense and jargon is difficult need to be read slowly and not merely cover-to -cover, otherwise your comprehension will take a toll. Difficult works like GWF Hegel’s Phenomenology of The Spirit or Martin Hedeigger’s Being and Time or Hans Kelsen’s The Pure Theory of Law are such that if you miss comprehending a single sentence you won’t comprehend the next one. Some works in economics, law, linguistics are like that too. Mathematics, statistics, accounting, logic, language textbooks require more than just a slow reading – a notebook to practice. Other subjects like anthropology, history, sociology, psychology, mythology, religion, political science, management are quite breezy and you may read them fast.
Balancing Cognitive Overload
Reading in a range of disciplines also helps balance cognitive overload which harms comprehension. For example heavy reading in difficult disciplines like philosophy, law, economics, linguistics, statistics can be balanced by alternating between these and lighter academic disciplines like history, sociology, political science, psychology, anthropology and management theory.
Similarly you can alternate a range of authors, schools of thought, ideologies, methods, sub-disciplines or theories. For example, after reading difficult works in analytical philosophy, phenomenology, or post-structuralism you may switch to more accessible or very light philosophy like the Frankfurt School. What results is a well-integrated brain.
I will wind up with a few observations on reading routine and note-taking. There are two approaches to reading – a disciplined reading routine and full immersive reading. Routine people are certainly more disciplined and often achieve much more as in the proverbial tortoise compared to the hare. The most successful people often prescribe routine. Life and success coaches do as well. Monks and senior managers lead regulated lives. There is much to recommend for fixed routine. It saves you from laziness and depression.
But routine also prevents the delirium and vertigo of peak mastery, total concentration and immersion and not leaving a job undone when it is at hand. Sculptors, painters, musicians, poets sometimes work in a mad feverish frenzy. This is called flow, a concept popularized by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
If you devote one hour to reading or writing each day it will add on and you won’t lose focus. The best authors have a daily routine of writing a few pages. That helps them finish their books by diligently blocking daily time for it against exigencies of life that may interrupt plans. But as George Bernard Shaw once reminisced, he was so obsessed with time-blocking when young that he used to stop reading or writing in the middle of a sentence.
When you block fixed time for reading you will leave a book at a random chapter or page and by the time you return to read ahead, you might forget the gist of what you were reading earlier. You lose some of the cognitive benefits of perceiving the system in its entirety and reading on when your memory of what you have read so far is still fresh. The same goes for writing. If you fix a routine, you may sometimes lose track of the structure of the entire corpus due to divided attention, though there are greater chances you will finish writing the book few pages a day then leaving it in the middle, burnt out and overwhelmed.
There are pros and cons of each approach. The best approach perhaps is to go for total immersion while reading and follow a structured routine for writing books, stories and papers. As writing is more painful than pleasant as compared to reading, structuring routine helps manage better although best writing comes from immersion or frenzy. Choose what goes best with the kind of person you are – regulated or immersive.
If you read with the intention of teaching or writing rather than only gaining knowledge, you may also need to take notes. Taking notes while reading interrupts the flow of reading and comprehension due to divided attention. It is best to take notes separately in a notebook or word document, before or after completing the book, outlining the structure and key arguments for better comprehension and taking interesting citations for use.
However, when you are reading solely for class assignments, theses, dissertations, papers, articles, exams or teaching you may skip reading in detail and only focus on taking notes (outlines and citations). There the objective is different and time is a constraint so you speed read, flip through, reference, skim lots of books to articulate your view. But that kind of reading also reduces comprehension.
To conclude, work and life are the ultimate testing ground of all that you have digested and understood through books. Profit from the vast sea of knowledge, observation, experiences, analyses, and reflections encapsulated in books but value those thinkers, theories and books the most, whose wisdom meets the test of your own life experiences and the test of time.
Nobody masters everything and everyone masters something. Whether you fill a mug or bucket from the ocean, the ocean doesn’t get exhausted and you will always need to learn something you missed that affects your life. As the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty said, there is no thought that can embrace all the thoughts. And what you miss will still come to hit your life. God always knows where to strike to humble you. As you evolve in life be willing to let go of older intellectual myopias and shoddy thinking and stay open to new learning.
For philosophy and religion: A Pictorial History of Philosophy by Dagobert Runes; Masterpieces of World Philosophy in Digest Form by Frank Magill; Biographical Dictionary of Twentieth Century Philosophers by Diane Collinson; Essential Sacred Writings from Across the World by Mircea Eliade; and The Muirhead Library of Philosophy series.
For social sciences and a range of other disciplines: Thinkers of The Twentieth Century by Elizabeth Devine et al. (2nd edition by Roland Turner); Ideas and The Modern Mind, both by Peter Watson; Biographical Supplement to The International Encyclopaedia of Social Sciences (now International Encyclopaedia of Social and Behavioural Sciences) published by McGraw Hill; Twentieth Century Culture by Alan Bullock and R.B. Woodings; The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thinkers by Alan Bullock.
The following book series expose you to a range of thinkers: Tom Butler-Bowdon’s 50 Classics; Routledge’s Key Series; Routledge Classics; Continuum Impacts; Library of Philosophy, Psychology and The Scientific Method; History of Civilization; Meridian: Crossings Aesthetics; Theory Out of Bounds; Theory and History of Literature; Post-Contemporary Interventions; Cultural Memory in The Present; Writing Architecture (architecture).
The following lecture series cover pre-eminent thinkers of the twentieth century: Tanner, Gifford, Reith, Massey, Charles Eliot Norton, Hamlyn (law). The following online resources provide free eBooks useful for scholars: The Internet Archive; Online Library of Liberty; Library of Economics and Liberty; Liberty Library of Constitutional Classics; Access to Insight; Internet Sacred Text Archive, McMaster’s Archive of History of Economic Thought.
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