We know how to read, but each time we process less what we read. We read more, but we reflect less. We have access to more content, but increasingly ephemeral and inconsequential. Why reading if what we read does not cause any substantial change in us or in our way of seeing the world?
Henry David Thoreau extolled the power of reading, but also warned that to get the juice out of books we need to learn to read. In fact, he lamented that “Most men have learned to read to serve a paltry convenience, as they have learned to cipher in order to keep accounts and not be cheated in trade; but of reading as a noble intellectual exercise they know little or nothing.”
For the philosopher “A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself.” However, he also believed that reading by reading, without the necessary intellectual exercise that entails, can be useless.
Thoreau’s 4 tips to take advantage of the power of reading
1. Few books, but good
Thoreau believed that it is a mistake to think that we need to read thousands of books. The important thing for the philosopher was the quality of what we read, rather than the quantity. In fact, he was firmly convinced that we need to be much more careful with the food we choose for our minds. For Thoreau, every written word was not worth the same.
He was convinced that some books, especially “novelistic” literature, as well as news diaries, can cause a “Dullness of sight, a stagnation of vital circulation and a general fainting with loss of all mental faculties.” The philosopher alerted us that the written word that does not encourage reflection and introspection leads us to intellectual dullness.
That is why he affirmed that it is better to have only a dozen books at home, provided that they are works that can teach us something every time we open their pages, instead of having an immense library that does not give us anything.
2. A moment just for reading
Haste does not make good crumbs with reading. A quick reading, marked by noise, distractions and daily rush often leaves no trace in our memory, is erased as fast as we consume it without leaving anything behind. Therefore, turning reading into a fleeting habit is a full-fledged error.
On the contrary, Thoreau believed that “Have to stand on tiptoe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to it” because only full consciousness can allow us to develop the mental openness necessary to make a profitable reading. We must read to activate our mind, not for words to dull it.
“To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will tax the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent,, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object.” added the philosopher.
3. Know the classics
It is a common mistake in our times, and also in those of Thoreau, to prioritize contemporaries forgetting the great classics. However, whoever reads philosophy regularly realized that many of the ideas of modern philosophers come from antiquity. Many other disciplines, including Psychology itself, while looking to the future, also dig in the past in search of valuable ideas.
That is why Thoreau did not hide his preference for those “Books which circulate round the world, whose sentences were first written on bark” and recommended the “study of the classics” as a way to broaden our thinking and learn to distinguish the valuable word from that which only represents a noise in the system.
In addition, reading the classics demands a more arduous mental exercise since many times we need to be able to move to another era and culture in order to understand the author’s thinking in context. “Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written”, Thoreau warned us.
Therefore, the key lies in finding a fair balance in which the classics are not displaced, but instead become a solid base that allows us to continue discovering the world of letters.
4. Go further and apply what you read
“We must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits”, wrote Thoreau.
A good book is not one that reads simply or is comforting, but one that requires the reader to reevaluate all – or at least some – aspects of his life. The good book is one that encourages us to rethink our beliefs and choices leading to a self-examination that, while it can be exhausting, is always an exercise of personal growth.
That means that staying merely with the author’s words is a big mistake. We must ask ourselves: How does what we have read apply to us? How can that reading help us to grow? It is, in short, to make the hours dedicated to reading really count. Because as Thoreau himself said: “What begins with a reading must end with an act.”
Thoreau, H. D. (2002) Walden, la vida en los bosques. Madrid: Editorial Libros de la Frontera.