26. Why Read?
If aliens from outerspace came down and saw us reading they might think we were mentally challenged. They would probably blow us up as useless.
“Why are they they looking at these strange lines and curves and shapes when they can be talking to each other or running or watching movies or whatever.”
Or “Why slouch on a couch, squinting at an obscure and probably meaningless piece of paper when they can be doing healthy things?”
Reading seems like a very hard activity. You have to learn a written language, sit very still, focus, and try to translate the 100,000 or so marks that appear in every book.
And, by the way, if you read enough it’s a guarantee you will damage your eyes.
But it’s worth it. Here’s 10 reasons why:
A) EDUCATIONAL (with an important caveat):
Today, for instance, I read from “End of Power” by Moises Naim, to prepare for my podcast with him.
The man is a genius. I read about his theories of why countries like America or companies like Microsoft inevitably experience a decay in their power and influence despite their massive size and ability to coerce.
How photo companies like instagrapm can have a dozen employees, zero revenues, and be sold for a billion dollars while other photo companies like Kodak can have 140,000 employees and then go bankrupt.
He explains how, why, what, and how to take advantage of it. It was fascinating.
The caveat is: I’ll only remember a small amount. Maybe a year later, one or two pieces of information and maybe one theme will stick with me. But that’s ok.
Hopefully I’ll remember the important parts.
Given that I’m only going to remember a small amount in the long run, I have to also love the act of reading.
I love how writers put together words to form sentences I’ve never thought of. How the sentences weave together into stories.
I imagine myself in the story. I imagine that for a moment I’m the main character. I live their lives.
In the middle the night, with wind blowing, Claudia sleeping next to me, the anxieties of the day subsiding, I get to travel to an entirely new Universe and be a part of it. I’m Harry Potter. Or I’m Frodo. Or the guy stuck on Mars in “The Martian”.
Why not watch it on TV instead? I am!
The TV is in my head and much more vivid. It’s IDTV – Imagination-Density-TV and has many more colors and pixels and dreams infused in it.
The other day I was reading “The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin. She decided to spend a year focusing on making 12 different parts (one for every month) of her life happier.
Each month she had a dozen or so suggestions about how to improve that part of her life. Again, some I’ll remember, some I’ll apply, some will make me happier, some will be applicable only to her. She admits that.
And some I will forget.
I was inspired by the fact that several hundred small suggestions could add up to a significant increase in our level of equanimity in her life – our ability to be calm in the face of the difficult and to enjoy more the higher peak moments.
She gave one suggestion which I tried the other day. Claudia and I were bickering about something or other. I forget.
Gretchen suggests hug for at least six seconds. It takes six seconds of hugging for the oxytocin and serotonin “happy chemicals” (which I learned about in another book: “Meet Your Happy Chemicals” by Loretta Breuning) to get triggered into the body, causing feelings of intimacy and happiness.
I hugged Claudia and slowly counted to six.
D) VIRTUAL MENTORSHIP
Although reading is inspiring, it feels like the inspiration lasts for a few hours and then starts to get metabolized.
I feel grateful and mindful and “present” for awhile but then I need more.
I don’t mind though, since I like to be inspired. And the more of it I read, the easier it gets to become a practice.
But just as important and inspirational to me, is reading about the lives of virtual mentors.
At any given point, I have interests. And with any interest, there are people who came before me who are much better than me. They have put in their 10,000 hours.
They have dominated the subtleties of their field and have spent a lifetime mastering their craft.
We’re the average of the five people we surround ourselves with. But I don’t usually hang out with five people a day. But I can hang out with five people through books.
Every day I read about people who have done what I would like to do. I then try to model myself after them: their behavior, learn from their failures, their successes, their behavior, their courage.
It’s hard to get a real-life mentor. That said, I think at every stage of life we need one. And for every passion and interest you have, I, at least, learn the fastest from the people who came before me.
A book about a person you want to model yourself after, allows you to have a virtual mentor. Virtual mentors are often greater than real-life mentors.
A book is the curated life of these mentors, the exact pivotal points where their actions had the most impact on the people they came to be. I love to read these books.
I just finished “Born Standing Up” by Steve Martin. He might not know it but he’s now my mentor.
Food, by Jim Gaffigan.
Trust me on this one.
F) YES, READING MAKES ME BETTER THAN OTHER PEOPLE
I love playing games. For instance, since I was a kid I love games like chess, scrabble, poker.
But if I just play the games day after day, I never get better. The only way I get better is to study the books written by or about the great players of history.
It’s a sad goal: to want to beat your friends mercilessly in a game. But it’s worth it and reading lets me achieve that goal.
In every area I read about, I slightly improve my knowledge, my understanding, and my ability to come up with new ideas in that area.
It’s that little bit each day, that can give any of us a huge edge in the long run. Knowledge compounds rather than increases little by little.
This sounds pretentious. So I will make it less pretentious.
The other day, right here on this page, I plagiarized my 12 year old daughter.
She had written a story. In one part of the story things were somewhat somber. So she used the phrase “the hush of silence” to describe the feelings of the characters.
Later, as they often do in life, things got more tense.
The atmosphere was “stung with silence”. I liked that juxtaposition. I honestly was a bit envious she used these phrases and they didn’t seem like cliches.
Two opposite ways to describe something that was essentially empty: silence.
So, like a good father … I stole from my daughter, figuring she would never know (shhh, don’t tell her). I used the phrase “stung with silence” in a post.
I need to improve as a father.
But I can’t help it. Sometimes the way words weave together, and connect me to other parts of a story where similar words were used (like a poem), makes me want to put a book down and think the words over and over in my head.
Sentences and stories and articles have a rhythm, like a song. The best writers make beautiful songs.
Many great authors do that through the authenticity and honesty in their language: Denis Johnson, James Baldwin, Miranda July, and on and on.
You don’t have to be a great poet. Just really dig out the honesty of a single moment.
This is why newspapers are junk. “Being informed” is a scam marketing campaign. Fear drives subscriptions. Period.
But books don’t worry about that.
“Bold” by Peter Diamindis and Stephen Kotler gives me huge reasons for optimism in a world where the daily junk media is nothing but doom and gloom.
3D Printing, Robotics, Synthetic Biology, virtual reality, space travel, and historical trends on literacy and poverty and violence – all show the direction the world is heading and it’s a positive one.
One great example: many of the tools we take for granted in our cell phone (GPS, a game player, video recorder, camera, music library) when added up would have cost close to a million dollars in 1982 and now cost just a few hundred dollars.
This democratization of technology is spreading throughout the developing world, creating a larger middle class than ever and bringing people out of poverty. As Dr. Naim said in “The End of Power”, for the first time, more people live above the poverty line in Africa than below it.
Not a huge cause of celebration but a start. It’s a direction of growth. And as I learned in Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project” – growth and happiness go side by side.
Or “Sapiens – a Brief History of Humankind” describes the historical evolution of our species going from tribes to cities to kingdoms to empires to leaving us with an optimistic hope that further unification will lead to greater abundance and eventual peace.
I can’t write unless I read first. I’ll read and read and read and then suddenly a little electric bomb goes off in my head when the reading uncovers a memory I had forgotten existed.
It’s like reading digs into my head as if it were an archaeological find.
Then I almost feel like I’m hypnotized until I write.
Often I like to try on the styles of different writers as well. It’s like they’ve woven clothes out of their words and I get to try on the different sets of clothes.
The writers become my mentors after I read them.
The reality is: as much as we have in common, I’m different from my daughters. But guess what – we’ve all read The Hunger Games.
And so we can talk about the ethics of what happens in the Games. The dynamics of how the world is set up politically. We can make up possible ways fan fiction can exist in the world created by the author.
We can talk for hours about it.
With almost anyone I meet, our common ground is usually based on the things we read. The more we have both read, the more common ground in most cases.
It’s such a pleasure to occasionally speak the same language as my children like we are complete equals. Even though they are smaller than me and love to watch the reality show “Dancing Moms”, reading has become our great equalizer.
I like to sleep eight uninterrupted hours a day (many reasons for that by Dave Asprey’s “The Bulletproof Diet”, AJ Jacobs “Drop Dead Healthy”, and Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project” give good descriptions of how to build a good sleep routine). Sleeping is the number one way to build energy and rejuvenate the brain.
But I also once read that when you wake up with an idea, you have to write it down immediately or you’ll forget it.
I woke up at 2am with the idea to write this post. It’s 3:04 and I’m going back to sleep.