Why I Read: An Essay in Two Acts

I. Learning to Read

“There is no Frigate like a Book to take us Lands away.” —Emily Dickinson

The importance of books

My parents taught me the importance of books. They surrounded me with books, read to me, and encouraged my love of books. As a child of the 1970s, I was lucky: There were 3 television stations, and no video games to serve as a distractions. I remember my mom telling me that books could take you anywhere. I knew that she didn’t mean literally, but I learned that my imagination filled in enough of the gaps to make the distinction meaningless. Books could take me anywhere.

I remember staring at the books in my parent’s and grandparents house longingly. Once I could read, I read the titles and authors and they were like magic incantations: Eye of the Needle, The Thornbirds, Hunt for Red October, Tropic of Cancer, and mysterious names like John Le Carre, which I always pronounced, “la car.”

Learning to read

I learned to read in grade school. In Kindergarten we had this wonderful flip-board story about Milton the Monkey and his adventures. Each adventure tackled a letter of the alphabet, one for the capital and one for the lowercase. That is how I learned the alphabet.

The process of learning to read is a blur. Today, it feels like something I have always known. But I do remember sounding out L-O-V-E and the thrill I felt in the achievement stayed with me right down to this very moment. I remember struggling with words early on, especially when reading aloud. I remember wondering if I would ever be able to read as smoothly as my teachers or parents read. It seemed like it would never happen, but eventually it did. I remind my kids of this today, as they learn to read.

In first grade I discovered a book called The Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley. The book was midwife to love of science and astronomy. I checked our of the library repeatedly, and can remember reading it, so I was reading (haltingly) in first grade.

There were other books along the way: abridged and illustrated editions of Robin Hood and Treasure Island that seemed daunting. There were four of the blue bound Hardy Boys books on a shelf. I remember being fascinated by Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing (read in third grade). I looked forward to the Weekly Reader. I picked out books on ghost stories, and mysteries, sometimes combining the two, as in The Mystery of the Green Ghost. There were books on Bigfoot and UFOs. There was a fantasy book, David and the Phoenix, which may well have been the first novel that I read on my own. Today it would be called a YA novel. There was a remarkable story I read in my four or fifth grade reading textbook called “How Baseball Began in Brooklyn.” I have never been able to find it again, but it was wonderful.

Libraries and the great awakening

As a small boy, I went with my mom to the Franklin Township library, near my house. I remember the stacks of books and I couldn’t believe that so many books could possibly exist in the world. And I could actually borrow these books. It was amazing.

I was always fascinated by the school library. When we moved to New England when I was in second grade, the school library was a big open area between corridors. Books lined the walls. The center had tables and displays, and smaller bookcases. Just walking along the shelfs, looking at the book spines was a thrill.

It was when we moved to Los Angeles, when I was in sixth grade, that I really discovered the power of the library. I would walk to the Granada Hills library, about a mile or so from my house. In the summers, the walk was hot, but the library was air-conditioned and blessedly cool. It was at this library that my reading expanded.

I had mostly read fiction with an occasional nonfiction book. But once I had access to the Granada Hills library, I experimented with everything. I could spend what seemed like hours walking through the stacks. I’d take some books and sit at a reading carrell, flipping through the pages, skimming here and there. I realized that if there was something I wanted to know about I could look it up in the library. I was fascinated by the card catalog, and became a whiz at using it to find what I was looking for. It’s hard to describe the feeling, but I suppose it is something akin to an amateur golfer finding in a golf course, everything they could ever want.

Oddly, I have no memory of my high school library, but in college, the library was a like temple to me, and I’d often seek out desolate, quite places where I could study and stare at the books that surrounded me.

Using the tools

By the time I reached high school, I knew how to read. I mean that I don’t think I read any faster today than I did when I was in high school. What high school taught me was how to think critically about what I read. Looking back, I consider myself a naive reader before high school. I never really thought to question what I read, or apply what I read in one domain of knowledge to another domain of knowledge.

All of that changed in high school. I went to a humanities magnet high school in Los Angeles in the late innings of the 1980s. We didn’t have traditional English and History classes. Instead, we rotated through a set of four “core” humanities classes: philosophy, literature, social institutions, and art history. These classes taught me how to think about what I read, and exposed me to the kind of reading I had never come across on my own. We read Plato and Socrates. Some of it was boring, but the parts that weren’t made it worthwhile. We read Shakespeare. We read Vonnegut and Richard Wright. It was in high school that I began to form my own opinions about what I read, rather than regurgitate summaries. I decided, for instance, that Henry V was my favorite Shakespeare play, and the Tempest was my least favorite. It felt good to have opinions!

We read books I would never have chosen, but was grateful for reading: Day of the Locusts, The Painted Bird, and Ragged Dick to name just a few.

One of the biggest takeaways from high school was that so long as you felt you understood what you were reading, and had some sense of the context of it, you could disagree with your teachers, and others on what was good and bad. I never liked A Tale of Two Cities and the fact that I had to read it in school nearly turned me off of Dickens forever. This confidence has had positive and negative side-effects. I never worry about differing in opinion on a book with friends or family. On the other hand, I rarely ask for or take recommendations from people I know, simply because I know my own tastes better than anyone else. This is unfair to others, true, but I put some of the blame on being forced to read things that I didn’t like. I dread little more than the words, “You should read…”

Learning to learn

College taught me to use those these skills to learn. It seems to me that the wide variety of classes I took in college (from cultural anthropology to organic chemistry to constitutional law to entomology to history and film) provided different tools for learning, all of which depended on reading and books.

  • Constitutional law taught me how to write a succinct argument.
  • Organic chemistry taught me the importance of showing my work. Before organic chemistry, I had the neatest lab books, everything copied neatly over from my original notes. After organic chemistry, my lab books and other notes were far more messy because I worked out everything there, crossed out (but didn’t erase) my mistakes. They became a kind of history my progress.
  • Classes on political theory taught me how to do proper research.
  • Classes on journalism taught me the conciseness of reporting. Often in meetings to this day, I try to focus on the who, what, when, where, how, and why to get the point as quickly as possible.

By the time I completed four years of college, and walked away with a B.A. in political science and journalism, I had all the tools I needed to begin learning in earnest.

II. Why I read

“Books became his academy, his college. The printed word united his mind with the great mind of generations past.” —Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of RivalsThe Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

My informal education

I read to learn. I read because just when I was in the optimal position to continue my formal education and really start to learn, I went out and got a job. I read to provide myself with an informal education using the tools I learned from my parents, grade school, high school, and college. It turns out that this informal education has now lasted nearly a quarter of a century, and is far better than anything I imagine a graduate education in a specialized field could have provided me. But it is never enough. I always want more. As John Adams once said, “I read my eyes out and can’t read half enough… the more one reads the more one sees we have to read.”

I call it an informal education, but only because it has less structure than what a university setting might provide. The structure is straight-forward. In late 1995 I set a goal: read one book per week, or 52 books per year. In order to track my progress, I needed to track what I read. Thus, my reading list was born.

First page of my reading list.
First page of my reading list.

In learning to read, I’d learned to learn. Now I wanted to learn as much as I could. About everything. And so, I started my list and the first entry was for a collection of Isaac Asimov science essays, recorded as book #1 on my list. 22 years later, I just passed my 800th book.

The butterfly effect

My education is guided by a principle akin to the butterfly effect. I might read a book about Leonardo da Vinci and end up, ten books later on a book about Alaska:

  1. Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson
  2. The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester
  3. Genghis Kahn and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford
  4. Paper: Paging Through History by Mark Kurlansky
  5. The Map That Changed the World by Simon Winchester
  6. The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel
  7. The Lost City of Z by David Grann
  8. Walden On Wheels by Ken Ilgunas
  9. 1491: New Revelations of America Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann
  10. Coming into the Country by John McPhee

This butterfly effect controls my curriculum and is the best force for education that I have ever encountered. While occasionally, one book logically follows another, sometimes there are odd jumps. I read the book on Genghis Kahn after reading an article in Money magazine about the richest people in history relative to the current dollar. (Khan was one of the richest.)

The butterfly effect acts as a kind of natural selection for reading. I don’t know exactly how it works, but I have discovered that its selection of books has gotten better over time. While I don’t rate books (I think rating books is silly), I do mark a book as one I’d recommend or read again. The number of books so marked has increased in frequency over time. This tells me that whatever force is at work behind this butterfly effect, is getting better over time.

Applied reading

I practice what I call applied reading. I try to take something practical and useful from everything I read. Sometimes, that comes in the form of other books to read. Other times, it is practical, real-world advice that I can apply to my life. The best self-help books out there are the stories of remarkable achievements other people have made. For instance, the best books I’ve read on project management didn’t come from the Self-Help shelf. One was The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. The other: Moon Lander: How We Developed the Lunar Module by Thomas J. Kelly. Both of these books described how real people solved real problems in the real world, and I took invaluable lessons from these books that have helped my manage projects at work.

I am constantly marking up the books I read. I learned long ago that to learn the most I can from a book, I need to make it mine. I underline passages and write in the margins. Looking at a book I read reveals much about what I was thinking about while reading it. This helps me apply what I read.

Knowledge is power

Education is the foundation of a democracy. When education fails, that foundation begins to crumble. For me, it is a lifelong pursuit. That foundation needs constant reinforcement. I can’t force others to want to learn new things, but I can learn new things myself, and in doing so, I can do my part to help keep that foundation intact.

As Thomas Jefferson once said, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”


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