To feel, to swim

When it comes to reading, I have a process. Once I’ve selected a book—always of the dead-tree kind—I begin reading it, with pen in hand. As I go, I make infrequent marginalia, highlight interesting parts, and fold corners (top corner fold represents a notable passage or idea, bottom corner fold represents an idea or author to be researched in the future). When I finish the book, I note the date on the final page and record my immediate observations, impressions, and questions—a practice I picked up from Montaigne. Then it goes into a finished pile, to await incorporation into my commons, which is a digital archive of .txt files that I type up when I review a book.

the stack
Midway through processing.

The above process has friction deliberately built in, the biggest source of it being that it takes a long time to type up the passages I end up thinking are noteworthy. So I avoid it, usually with the result that I have a lot of books to review and capture notes on. Normally, it stays within manageable bounds and I can clear the backlog relatively quickly. Not this time. Between the 9th June and the 27th October of this year I read thirty-four books, and by the end of October I had taken notes on none of them. The full list, in order of consumption (because I don’t shine enough light on what I’m currently reading and enjoying):

Tree and Leaf by J.R.R. Tolkien
Volume Three of The Complete Works of Primo Levi
Hitler; A Study in Tyranny by Alan Bullock
Pyramids by Terry Pratchett
Guards, Guards by Terry Pratchett
The Architecture of Community by Leon Krier
The Interface Envelope by James Ash
Eric by Terry Pratchett
Philosophical Remarks by Ludwig Wittgenstein
The Girard Reader
The Mediterranean in the Ancient World by Fernand Braudel
Liquid Modernity by Zygmunt Bauman
In The Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent
The Lever of Riches by Joel Mokyr
Diaspora by Greg Egan
Beyond Economics and Ecology by Ivan Illich
The Dictator’s Handbook by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
Energy; A Beginner’s Guide by Vaclav Smil
Invisible Planets by Hannu Rajaniemi
Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins
The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi
At The Mind’s Limits by Jean Amery
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
The Red Men by Matthew de Abaitua
The Telomere Effect by Elizabeth Blackburn
The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross
The (Mis)Behaviour of Markets by Benoit Mandelbrot
Disruptive Play by Shepherd Siegel
The Courage to Be Disliked by Fumitake Koga
The Prize by Daniel Yergin
The Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross
Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana
Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World by Rene Girard.

Because I couldn’t bear the thought of declaring book-bankruptcy and not taking notes on these texts, I got serious about the problem. After finishing Girard’s Things Hidden, I gave myself a rule: I can’t start another book until I’ve got through the backlog. Whilst that rule was in effect, I contented myself with a re-read of Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet and then a re-read of Stephen Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, both of which I was already familiar with and didn’t need to take notes on. (I’ve got to have something to read…)

But the ordeal is over. I’m happy to say that, over the last weekend, I cleared the last of them. And this, in turn, granted me an unprecedented opportunity: I got to start multiple new books, all at the same time. It’s an understatement to say that I was unreasonably excited at the prospect. (For the interested, I decided to start six books: The King James version of The Bible, Minding Mind by Thomas Cleary, The Quest by Daniel Yergin, Within a Budding Grove by Marcel Proust, Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler, and The Language Construction Kit by Mark Rosenfelder.) But this opportunity also provoked pause. In choosing what to read next, I was forced to examine a deeper question: Why do I read in the first place? In fact, why does anyone read? I came up with four answers.

First, and most obviously, people read for entertainment. For pleasure and to pass the time. Second, people read to get smarter. To accumulate insight and grow their expertise. Third, people use reading as means to collect a variety of lenses and perspectives—to see differently and in a more interesting manner. Those three answers to the question of, “Why read?”, are straightforward. The fourth was less intuitive and came as a bit of surprise to me. People read to become better humans.

The order in which I’ve listed the answers to the question above is significant; it is how they came to me as I answered the question in my notebook, and it mirrors the evolution in my own reasons for reading so voraciously.

My father reads a lot. Mostly fiction, mostly thrillers. So when I was growing up I did the same. He’d finish a book and then I’d read it—alongside things like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, of course. Naval Ravikant once said, “Read what you love, until you love to read.” That is what happened in my youth.

Then, in my late-teens and early-twenties, I stumbled upon Ryan Holiday’s idea of reading to lead and Nassim Taleb’s notion of self-education via an antifragile and insatiable curiosity. As a consequence, I began to read more about history and philosophy and science. Reading was still entertaining to me, but it became more about getting smarter, about making myself more valuable.

A few years after that I transitioned and began to take writing, as a vocation, seriously. At this point I realised that to write requires a vast diversity of viewpoints—to put out something different it’s necessary to take in many different things. So, reading, which had gone from being primarily about entertainment to being about accumulating smarts, became about the ingestion of diverse fragments. I switched to thinking of reading as a modular activity, one in which I cut up various books in search of building blocks with which I could go on to create weird and unique structures and stories.

The above still holds—reading is still immensely fun, it still makes me smarter (I think), and through it I still find weird and wonderful ideas to analyse and synthesise. But when I had the opportunity to choose new books, to think about reading and why I do it, I found those things were in the background. Still present, but not at the fore. When I asked myself the question I couldn’t help but think of figures like Primo Levi and Jean Amery, people who were touched by atrocity but who managed to retain their humanity. They didn’t just, as Nietzsche did, look into the abyss and find that it stared right back—they were thrown headfirst into its suffocating embrace and forced to feel its putrid breath as it drew them into its maw.

In the current space and time I occupy, I can’t reasonably expect—nor do I wish to—experience such things as they went through. But I do want to learn about them and understand them. Doing so is not particularly entertaining—reading about someone’s torture is itself a trial to anyone with any empathic ability. Neither does reading about someone’s agony and suffering make me smarter or more able in any conventional domain—it won’t help net me a contract or understand the laws of the universe. And the descriptions of and the meditations on their difficulties are not overly-extravagant or excessively weird, in and of themselves. Their uniqueness is due to their difference in intensity, not their difference in kind—we all suffer to some degree, after all. So why do I want to read such things? Because, as cited above, reading such accounts will, I believe, help me to be kinder, to be more thoughtful, to be more generous, to be more courageous, to be more humane. To think more, yes, but more importantly to feel more.

The pause that allowed me to consider the “why” of reading also gave me the space the to re-consider the “how”, as well. As mentioned above, I have a fairly structured process for reading, but that structure has as its foundation the idea of “being a demanding reader”. I first came across this idea via Shane Parrish’s Farnam Street, where he extolled the virtues of being a demanding reader. There’s more information here and here, but the crux of it is that “Reading is all about asking the right questions in the right order and seeking answers.” I agree with that, but less now than I used to.

In the introduction to Zero Zero Zero, a book about the global trade of cocaine, Roberto Saviano denies the virtues of objectivity that the typical non-fiction book about such a subject usually aims at. He says:

“There are those who ask that art no longer be art. Those who insist that it be truer than the truth. More realistic than reality. As though it were a gigantic and, in the end, useless pantograph. My choice moves in the opposite direction. My aim is to threaten the power that threatens, recounting and unmasking it with as much force as it wields. What sense does it make to recount a Mafia murder if you don’t recount it from the perspective of someone nauseated from the acrid odor that emanates from those who died while digesting a meal they ate a few hours earlier? What sense does it make to only recount documents and not sensations as well? What sense does it make not to recount that existent universal truth even if it is not documented or cannot be measured?
Whoever writes nonfiction novels, deep down, recounts himself and the world through his words, through those lives and those deaths. He recounts that which is not visible, but is nevertheless there: sensations, emotions, and conjectures, even without definite proof. The news cannot do this, but it is literature’s duty. Adding reality to the novel and removing coldness from news reporting are the only possible methods for bringing “sensitive” subjects to the attention of the reader.”

Of course, Saviano is talking from the perspective of a writer, making the point that it is a writer’s duty to recall a moment with the twin powers of heat and cold. But the same is, I think, true for the reader.

To be a demanding reader is to be objective, to question, to challenge, to prod, to poke and to protest. It is to ascend to the same level as the author—himself positioned as an authority on his subject—and to initiate a dialogue as an equal, and to frame the dialogue in the context of everything you, the reader, and he, the author, knows about the content and its surrounding stories and ideas. But that is not the only way to read.

One could compress “being a demanding reader” into single word—“detachment”. This word signals a separation, a position above the fray, observation without involvement. Its opposite is “immersion”. Think about learning a language—it’s one thing for me to take French lessons on Duolingo in the comfort of my home. It’s another to embark on a three-week solo bicycle tour through the provinces. Both aide my learning of the language, but the latter far more than the former.

This was the re-evaluation I made when considering the “how” of writing. I thought that perhaps I would benefit more from deliberate immersion than distance and detachment—the latter being what I have striven for for so long. Perhaps I should give each book and each author the benefit of the doubt when they posit their argument, instead of relentlessly challenging them? Perhaps I should bestow upon them an aura of good intentions and allow them to take me by the hand and lead me where they will? Risky, maybe. But also of great potential value.

In Confessions of an Economic Hitman, John Perkins talks about the absurdity of expat communities in under-developed countries—how the inhabitants try to create their own little piece of home in a little piece of a foreign country. Typically, the homestead is sectioned off from its surroundings with high fences and armed guards, and as a consequence the high-flying execs that live there are out of touch with local and regional culture—which is bad news when they’re trying to build relationships and stock up on political capital. Perkins then goes on to recount some of his own forays into the communities his colleagues took such stringent measures to avoid. By allowing himself to be drawn into and absorbed by locals and local customs, he sees what others will never get the opportunity to. He sees how citizens of less developed countries actually feel about the Western powers; he sees the responses that certain imagery and ideas evoke; he sees the difference between the information his colleagues and employers are fed via their local contacts and what is truly the case.

By abandoning detachment and seeking immersion, Perkins accrued advantages his colleagues could not. I have no ambitions to be an economic hitman, but in my life I wish to see and feel and experience all that I can. So I will follow Saviano’s advice and Perkins’ example whilst reading. I won’t relinquish detachment, but I will de-emphasise it in favour of immersion. I will still take rest on the river’s bank to contemplate its shape and movement, but I will also endeavour to spend more time swimming with, against and across its currents.