Thanks for joining me and for your great feedback from our first lesson on the Forgotten Art of Reading. If you missed it, you can snag it here.
You’re faced with a great book you want to make your own. You are ready for the pleasures and all the benefits that accrue to you by working it out yourself – no blueprints, no answer keys, no easy explanations, no outsourcing.
So how do you do go about making the book your own? What does that even mean?
I could share a dozen tips and tricks with you…’hacks’ for reading difficult books and resources to support you on your reading journey.
But bottom line, none of this will amount to anything, if the one thing needful here is missing: time.
We need to talk about time more than anything else right now, because the #1 obstacle in your path and mine when it comes to reading great books is time.
It’s not intelligence: you are smart enough to do this.
It’s not about education – no one needs to have specialized in medieval anything to get a lot out of Chaucer.
But if you don’t take the time to sit down and actually read Chaucer then we have a problem.
Sometimes people think this is not a time problem but an energy problem. We are exhausted from our busy lives, and it seems so hard to sit down with a book like this for very long.
But in my experience, the energy issue flows from our relationship to time.
Because (not pointing fingers here) how many of us would rather binge watch a TV show or movies (there are some interesting ones after all), than make time and space to read?
Where does all of that time come from, the time we use for binge watching? We have perhaps more time than we are prepared to admit.
Our relationship to time is shaped in large part by the kind of world we live in. That’s not my idea, by the way, but can be found in a number of great books, like one called Democracy in America.
Alexis De Tocqueville spoke to this issue long before our modern conveniences (and inconveniences). He said in his Democracy in America that he didn’t think it likely that any truly great minds, like Pascal, could flourish in a democratic world – not because there won’t be really smart people. There will be, and there are some of those around today too. But because there’s so little time to devote to the sort of study that leads to a mind such as Pascal’s.
We’re all immersed in the business of making a living and raising families. But beyond this, the tempo of modern technocratic civilization has rendered it ever more difficult to pull ourselves out of ourselves, even for a few spare moments, to see, sense, know and feel something more of what’s out there than what is in front of our noses.
Tocqueville is talking about something real, something more true today than at the time he was writing – and this is a weird feature of great books by the way, they often seem prescient and far more relevant in our day and age than at the time they were penned.
I don’t know about attaining the greatness of Pascal (he would probably say that such an attempt would just be a diversion!), but I do know that it’s possible to do more than we have realized in our reading and learning. And that’s because there is more time than we perhaps thought we have.
There’s a time for everything under the sun, as it’s written in a very old book. Everything has its own time.
And there are countless ways we try to create time and space for ourselves, to give ourselves more time.
Setting our sights and expectations correctly is a powerful way to create time.
It’s like an absolute truth about learning. Most people, when they start learning a new skill, or engage a complex task (like reading a great book), simply have the wrong expectations about themselves and about the learning. In fact, more than half of what you’re really learning in the beginning has little to do with the skill or the matter hand, no matter what it is. It’s learning what to expect of the work and of yourself; learning about what the work itself is.
Most expect to move faster than it is both possible and desirable. They have the wrong expectation about how much time it will take.
When it comes to reading, it is like this: we expect that we should be able to read the whole book as fast as possible, and that reading is scanning and decoding words, in a linear fashion, as non-stop as possible, from cover to cover. We expect the thoughts of the author to come to us easily and quickly. Because on some level we think are minds are like receptacles receiving information.
But all of these expectations are out of joint, out of tune, with what is truly required of you when you sit down to read a great book.
The funny thing is that it takes less time to read a book like this, to make it your own, than you may have dreamed possible.
You don’t have to devote hours and hours in a single sitting to the reading. Most people stop there because they think that’s what’s required. A huge amount of time and easy assimilation. But not you.
You just have to devote a little time, but regularly. Small doses with regularity is the key. Reading less, and more slowly, but with greater intentionality, with greater awareness, has a far greater value in the long run, than reading for hours on end without energy and purpose, cramming as much as possible into your time, so you can finish.
Sit down with a book and take time for yourself to read it. Set a timer for 15-20 minutes, whatever is comfortable. Make a cup of tea or coffee, or whatever relaxes and vivifies you. You can make it a little ritual. When the timer goes off, mark your place, get up and go do something else.
But the real power is when you return again next time, with a will to sit down and show up. Where there is a will there’s a way. Pick up where you left off – either next day – or at later time the same day – and show up to the reading. Finish when the time is up, then move on. But then return again.
Always beginning again – with regularity – is the secret of mastery, in anything we do. Anything.
It’s almost a magical act and it is certainly a rebellious one as it goes against the grain of the tempo of modern life.
Reading, really reading, is an immersion experience. When you read a sentence, you stop in your tracks, and pause for as long as it is comfortable. It’s like going for a walk. You can go back to the beginning and reread it 12 times. Or 55 times. However many times it takes. You don’t have to reread the sentence or paragraph at all. You are the master of time and the tempo of your reading, in this sphere. Think about what you are reading, write a little. Wool-gather. Tell someone about what you’re gathering. And then you can go on whenever you are ready. Even though written speech is a linear one-at-a-time process, the experience of reading – if you are attuned to it, and allow it to grow into itself – is nonlinear. Don’t let the linearity of the text fool you.
When you watch a TV show or a movie, there’s no stepping off that fast moving current for 43 minutes or 2 hours and 20 minutes, or more, you are locked into the time. You can pause the movie and go to the bathroom. But it is a single track you are on, like a slide, most unlike the immersion experience of reading.
We always say the book is better than the movie, perhaps without realizing how true this is.
Reading a great book will be even more difficult, especially if you expect yourself to master it quickly, in very little time, and to read it effortlessly as you watch a TV show. There’s no point in speed reading books like these. We are never really finished with them anyway. For they grow with us over the years like fine wines.
Instead of speed reading, then, slow, unhurried reading is the thing.
Gandhi is reported to have once said “Learn as though you were to live forever…” I think this expresses perfectly the frame of mind we need to adopt.
We have the time for it, so let’s stop saying that we don’t.
Don’t rush. Be resolved to show up to your book periodically – or as regularly as you can – and read small bits of the text – a paragraph or page at a time. Keep track of where you are, and take a few steps at a time.
Did you know that this is how virtuoso musicians learn to play the most complicated pieces of music on earth? They take it one beat at a time, even one part of one beat; one movement of the finger, even one part of one movement. This is no exaggeration. And they slow down. Waaaaaay down. Itzhak Perlman, Yo Yo Ma – all of the greatest players say that at least 90% of practice is slow, slow, slow.
The slowing down to a ‘thinking speed’ gives them something like a super power, to see and hear and feel all the subtle changes and nuances they need to perceive.
The same is true for you and I, as serious readers of some of the most challenging books on earth. Give yourself a second chance, go slowly.
Take your time. And hang in there. If you stick with it, you’ll be on your way.
That’s how you begin to make a great book your own…you spend real time with it.
But we still have a final challenge and it is this…these books and the ideas in them are so influential but it is often hard to see that…so, how do we make these books come alive for us right here and right now? That’s what Part 3’s teaching is all about!