How to Read Books and Become Wise

Two friends, Francis and Paco, sat in leisurely conversation.

Francis: In 2015 I finally met my goal of reading over one hundred books in a single year.

Paco: That is incredible! How could you possibly have the time?

Francis: Well, I’m not entirely satisfied. It was possible in no small part because of a number of short and easy to read books that were in the mix. I think I will have a hard time reading the same number this year. But I don’t want to just hit the same number, I want to exceed it! Yet my reading routine is so thoroughly optimized, I’m not sure how I can squeeze more time in for it. Perhaps I could do audio books in parallel with books I’m reading textually, to fit the former into those moments when I must be concentrating on something and cannot focus on the latter.

Paco: But will you be able to retain anything about those audio books?

Francis: I always retain enough.

Paco: Enough for what?

Francis: Pardon?

Paco: You said that you retain enough. That implies that there is some purpose behind reading these books, based on which you are able to judge the value of what you retain.

Francis: Well, to become wise, I suppose. Or at least to learn, to know more.

Paco: And you always retain enough to become wiser, or more knowledgeable?

Francis: I hope so! It seems that way, anyway. I know a LOT more than I used to.

Paco: I envy you that. I feel like I know less than I used to.

Francis: What? How is that possible?

Paco: The more I read, the less confident I am in my knowledge.

Francis: But surely reading more cannot result in you knowing less! It’s simple math: you may not learn anything from the books you add to the set of those you have read, but they cannot subtract knowledge. More cannot result in less!

Paco: Can’t it? Well, you have read much more than I have, and clearly know more, so I will take your word for it.

Francis: But what did you mean, that you felt you knew less?

Paco: Well I started out quite confident in myself. I thought, even if I am not an expert, I know the basic outline of the truth better than most people. I am, after all, an educated, well read person, who has had discussions with many other educated, well read people. And so I set out to fill in that outline.

Francis: So far, so good.

Paco: At a certain point, however, I found that the whole outline was called into question. I encountered several compelling traditions of thought in which radically different outlines were advanced and at least credibly defended. So I find myself feeling that I know less than I did at the start.

Francis: But surely you now know more about these alternatives, and so you do in fact know more.

Paco: I suppose, though I don’t think I really understand any of them.

Francis: But you didn’t feel you understood the truth to begin with; you said you had an outline. Now you have several outlines. Even if you feel unsure, I’m certain you have learned as a result of this process.

Paco: I’m glad one of us is so certain.

Francis: Now you just see how much more reading you will need in order to really fill out those outlines, and become wise enough to determine which one is superior.

Paco: Well, that is another problem.

Francis: What’s that?

Paco: This last year, I only really read five or six new books.

Francis: Less than ten?! In a year??

Paco: And really, I spent most of the year reading and rereading two or three books I had read already. The new things I read were largely about those books or the authors of those books, or the schools of thought and historic context those authors were writing within. I read more essays and papers than books, but they were all to help me understand the books I was rereading.

Francis: But this will not do! You won’t make any progress at all, at this rate!

Paco: I do feel I have made some progress in understanding the books I have been rereading.

Francis: But what good is that? The opportunity cost of focusing on these books to this extent is enormous! Maybe you wouldn’t have been able to read a hundred books, but you could have read twenty, thirty, forty books—on original subjects and by authors you had not read before. Instead you circle these handful of books with supplemental material, like water circling a drain!

Paco: It’s easy for you to say; you retain enough from what you read to become wiser, no matter how fast you read it or if you are paying attention. I’m not so lucky—even when I give a book my full attention, for the entire duration of reading it, I feel like there is so much I have failed to grasp. And what I do feel I have grasped puts in doubt the meager understanding I thought I had managed to obtain initially!

Francis: It pains me to see you in this state. There must be something terribly wrong with your technique.

Paco: Technique?

Francis: Yes, technique; your method for reading.

Paco: I must admit that I have no method at all. Unless you count reading, and trying to understand, as a kind of method.

Francis: No, no, no. You must push through every book, and take what you can from it. Then you must press on and read something else. It’s true that you will encounter many books you feel you have only incompletely grasped. But often you will encounter something in another book which will shed some light on one you had already read and not entirely understood. When you are very lucky, you will find one book that will unlock an understanding of many books you’ve already read but found difficult. Diligence and discipline, and a regular routine—these are the keys!

Paco: I used to read that way, too. But I found that when a book appeared to shed light on another one I had already read, when I returned to the latter, it changed the way I understood the new book. And when I returned to that one again, it had changed but also changed yet again my understanding of the other book. And so I began reading fewer books, but felt I had unlocked enormous depths within each, though I could barely scratch at those depths.

Francis: You have let yourself get sucked into a loop, which you must break out of. Moreover, though you will not admit it, I can see you think that your way is correct. But think: if you can unlock these depths by exploring the relationship between a handful of books, imagine what you can do by drastically expanding the number of books in that conversation among books. And surely you can do better by bringing in a wider variety of perspectives on the same or related subjects than by digging down deeper and deeper into the meaning of the same words over and over.

Paco: Do you never reread books?

Francis: There are definitely books that are set apart from all the rest in their greatness. I try to reread at least one or two of these every year. But I also feel that rereading alone is not enough; I get more on these return trips if I have managed to read a lot of other new books beforehand. My perspective will have broadened, and I’ll be in a better position to see things I did not see the last time.

Paco: That is interesting. Perhaps I have just been chasing my tail lately.

Francis: It certainly seems like it. Six books in one year!

Paco: But I find it harder to discover new books that have anything approaching the depth of the books I have been rereading. The supplementary material similarly lacks that depth, as the writers are intelligent scholars but not great minds. But since their subject is the study of a great mind with whom I am becoming acquainted, it feels worth the effort.

Francis: You’re letting the great wisdom become the enemy of the good, or the common insight. There is value in simply taking account of a wide variety of perspectives, to learn what perspectives there are, and which are taken seriously by scholars and scientists.

Paco: You are probably right. But such things appear bloodless and colorless compared with truly great works. I find it hard to muster up the focus to stick with such things.

Francis: Have you considered simply reading more of the books that are considered to be great works, if just to familiarize yourself with them? Even if you expand the number of books the you reading, rereading, and reading about, it would be an improvement.

Paco: That is slowly becoming my goal, I will admit. But I also don’t feel very hurried about it. I’ll confess I’m enjoying the quiet, simple pleasure of digging deeply into a few works at a time rather than casting a wide net. I have an inkling that these great works have cast a wide net already, in terms of what they are connected to and what their wisdom touches upon.

Francis: But I’m quite sure the authors of the great works themselves were prolific readers.

Paco: I’m also certain they were prolific rereaders.

Francis: *throws hands up in the air* I guess there’s no talking sense into you. I’ll read a thousand books before you’ve read another hundred.

Paco: I’m glad to have you as a friend, then, so that I can talk to you and benefit from the wisdom you have gained.

Francis: Even if you choose to ignore it.

Paco: Hopefully I’ll retain enough of it, anyway.

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