The power of reading

Today I finished reading The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs. I’m sorry to say but reading the book wasn’t pleasurable at all. I didn’t find the style easy to follow. On the other hand, the author made many points that I agree with. 

One of the most important messages throughout the whole book was that a reader should have her own reasons to read a book. If you feel you like to read a book, then do it. Don’t do it because others do, and don’t stop reading things you enjoy. Although reading can be a social experience, especially when it comes to book clubs and discussion forums, it has a very strong intimate aspect about it. This is a time you can be alone with yourself and read what you like. Nobody should have a say in that except you.

Another important message in the book was that elitism in regards to reading is unacceptable and doesn’t make any sense at all. Reading is not an activity suitable for specific people more than others. It is not only for professors or authors or some higher class. Jacob himself came from a family which read for pleasure, although nobody, except him, had graduated from college. Some people seem to live with the same mentality many decades, if not centuries, ago when books where expensive, public libraries rare, and reading not for everybody.

Also, it is very authoritarian to claim that there are only a bunch of authors the whole world should read and that reading somebody else is a waste time. Nobody should feel superior and dismiss others for reading or not reading specific books. Unfortunately Jacob mentions a few quotes by famous literary  authorities who still believe that. A must-read list doesn’t make much sense. This is why Jacobs, the author, never feels comfortable giving recommendations about what to read, because he feels that they are not necessarily the right ones for others. I agree with him on that.

As for me, I will share why I think reading is such a powerful experience.

Joy. It is one of those activities than can take you to some other place. Yes, watching a great movie or a tv series can do that, too. But with reading, the experience lasts longer, and the good feeling of finishing a book is far more lasting than doing anything else. It feels as if a good book lives on with you forever and continues to interact with your intellect long after you have finished reading it.

Knowledge. Sometime I read a book to get some information, other times to learn a skill, but also to understand something. To often however, I read books or part of them out of curiosity. There are many books that I’ve started but never finished. I’m always very fast at finishing the first 10% of a book. After that I decide it I want to continue or not. Its sometimes a difficult decision, because there are many book I would like to read but have not time to do so.

However the most powerful impact a book has on me is when it helps me solving a problem I have had for a very long time. The amount and quality of good books in increasing over time. You can find more books that deal with issues you have suffered from without being able to describe or even name them. There are more people in the world who are doing great research, especially in psychology, that is practical and more substantive than the abstract theories of psychology we are used to from the past.

Another deeper level of gaining knowledge is obtaining experience and wisdom. In an Islamic teaching, it is said that Being acquainted with the history of others is like living their lives. This way you have lived one life, but gained the experiences of many. I think this a powerful concept that we often forget to consider when reading, especially when we read history, biographies, and memoirs.

Help. One of the great things about reading is that you   not only will be able to help yourself but also others. One of the great teachings in Islam is the following. The taxation of knowledge is sharing it. This is something really deep. Not only does it encourage people to share knowledge for themselves and help others with it, but it also points out some other important aspect about knowledge.

Just like the services government provides, producing knowledge is not without cost. In fact, it can be very costly. There are a lot of resources, energy and time to put into knowledge before it reaches us as consumers. We who benefit from it should also give back some of the benefit by sharing it.

If somebody is not paying taxes, it means that she is benefiting from the efforts of others without being willing to contribute in return. And this is regarded as a felony in all societies. Not sharing knowledge with others is similar to the dynamic happening with tax evasion. The penalty for it, also based on Islamic teachings is that If knowledge is not shared, it will be taken away from you. How it is taken away from you is not necessarily highlighted in the teachings, or at least I haven’t come across a clear explanation, but I think one of ways this happens is forgetting. We don’t necessarily use all knowledge we obtain. The knowledge we don’t use however might be useful to others. If we don’t us it and we don’t share it with others, then we are likely to forget it. But when sharing it, there is a chance that keep remembering it.

In fact, there is a connection between sharing knowledge with others, and being more able to memorise it. I don’t know if there is research about it, but whenever I have a problem with learning something, I try to imagine myself having to teach it to somebody else. Suddenly, I am more able to understand.

Challenge. There are books that some people claim are difficult to understand. They might be. But if we don’t try reading them, we won’t be able to know. And there shouldn’t be a problem if we fail understanding from reading them the first time. It doesn’t say anything about our intelligence if we need to read something over and over again before understanding it. Of course, this depends on our stamina and how much want to read the difficult text, regardless of our reasons to.

This is why I decided, starting this year, to read the classics. I know some of them are not easy to read, and not necessarily of direct use to me. But I nevertheless decided to try reading them. I see it as a personal challenge, but also as a way to understand a little bit about the texts that have influenced modern western civilisation and continue to do so, at least in its early stages.

Furthermore, I didn’t have a liberal arts education. In the Middle East, not much of the classics is taught at schools and universities. I think that diversifying my reading agenda can be useful and stimulating. The Harvard Classics seemed to be a great choice. But I always wanted to read the so called Great Novels like Peace and War and Les Misérables. They might tell a lot about the history and the way of thinking of the interesting times they had been written.

Argumentation. I haven’t done that before, but I think one of the great ways to understand the view points of others and maybe to discuss them is to read their books. This way I can understand why I believe in something or not, or why I should or shouldn’t. I don’t think that it is right to always read about the things you like and agree with. One should read the other views as well, in order to be able to argue one’s own believes and that of others.

Regardless of the powerful aspect of reading, I haven’t always been an avid reader. I love reading, and I have had great experiences through it, but I haven’t built the habit of reading regularly until recently. And I must say that it is not easy to get used to it. This is why I don’t like judgemental people who shame others and look down at them for not reading. I think this kind of people have missed one of the most important things reading should have taught them: humbleness.

Furthermore, those people who think themselves better than other people just because they read are mistaken. Not all who learn something make use of it, or help others through it. The later is what makes you a better person. Its like having money. Having it by itself doesn’t make you better or worse. Its how you have gained it and how you are spending it that defines you.


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