One of the few clear memories I have of my childhood is the moment I learned to read. There were red, plastic letters spread all across the floor. Their backs were magnetic, so you could attach them to a blackboard, order them, and try to make sense of things.
Sitting in the middle of the chaos, suddenly, everything clicked. I felt my heart beating faster. A door to a new world was open. I got up and ran through the house. “Mom! Mom! I can read! I can read!”
I was six years old. Lucky me, I had six months left before I started school.
“So many books, so little time.” ― Frank Zappa
Two rather extreme ways to look at the world are that either nothing or everything you do matters. I believe in the latter, so when I say I was lucky, I’m rather serious. Without the head start, the extra time to fall down the reading rabbit hole, I’d be an entirely different person today. I might not be a writer and I definitely wouldn’t fight as hard to keep reading.
I’m choosing the word ‘fight’ here because sometimes, even for someone who’s always loved books, that’s what it is today. A struggle. And when I look around, I see battlegrounds everywhere; a world Ray Bradbury saw in 1993:
“The problem in our country isn’t with books being banned, but with people no longer reading. Look at the magazines, the newspapers around us — it’s all junk, all trash, tidbits of news. The average TV ad has 120 images a minute. Everything just falls off your mind. You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”
On the surface, reading seems to hold the right place in our society. Everyone agrees it’s important and we all like to brand ourselves as avid readers. If I asked you, you could probably name a book you’re reading right now. If I asked again, however, I might find out you’ve been stuck on that book for a while. And if I asked a third time, maybe you’d tell me a nostalgic story of how, once upon a time, you used to love reading for hours on end. Used to.
But maybe that’s just me. After all, looking at the human scoreboard over the past 100 years, it’s hard to believe we’re in trouble. Famine is down, disease is down, child mortality is down, while life expectancy, standard of living, economic growth and happiness are all up. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have problems, just less of those technology can solve. Meanwhile, politics, human rights, and mental health threaten more than ever to tear us apart. Because they’re not problems of technology, they’re problems of culture.
It is our development in culture, not technology, that will define the future of humanity.
For all the good it’s done, much of our progress dominated by technology came at the expense of culture. 25 years after Bradbury’s statement, the destructive forces he described have succeeded beyond his scariest dreams. Not that it wasn’t obvious to anyone with internet access, but we do read less than ever. Youngsters only take 4–10 minutes a day — on weekends — which probably includes Twitter. 24% of adults haven’t even read part of a book in the last year. The median number of books for those who do read is four.
Despite both the subjective and objective evidence, the demise of reading is not a very public issue. In the age of new media, it may not feel like it matters. But it does. Not just because a lack of reading leads to a devastating lack of culture, but because both are completely avoidable symptoms of an even bigger disease: the way we educate our children.
When We Built Spaceships
In 1968, NASA approached Dr. George Land with a request: “Give us a tool to measure creativity, so that we may dedicate our most innovative thinkers to our toughest problems.” So he developed one. A test of what psychologists call ‘divergent thinking.’ According to Sir Ken Robinson:
“Divergent thinking isn’t a synonym, but it’s an essential capacity for creativity. It’s the ability to see lots of possible answers to a question, lots of possible ways of interpreting a question; to think what Edward de Bono would probably call ‘laterally,’ to think not just in linear or convergent ways. To see multiple answers, not one.”
The test did what it was supposed to and NASA was happy with the results, but it didn’t explain how the people that scored well came to be creative in the first place. To find out, Land launched a longitudinal study, giving the test to over 1,600 American children and re-testing them every five years. The results confirmed something Picasso intuitively knew to be true:
“Every child is an artist. The problem is to remain an artist once we grow up.”
When they were 4–5 years old, 98% of the children scored in the ‘genius’ category for imaginative, divergent thinking. Five years later, that number was down to 30%, then 12%, until, as adults, we seem to have lost this ability almost completely.
In his seminal book, Breakpoint and Beyond, Land came to a sad conclusion:
“Non-creative behavior is learned.”
What his work shows us is that when people admit they once loved reading, but have somehow fallen out of it, they really mean it. The number is also declining, but it’s still true: more than half of all children like reading for fun. They read or are read to one to several times a day.
We might not all be writers, singers and painters, but we are all born divergent thinkers. That’s why as kids, we gravitate towards books. We have a natural desire to read, because we want to hold multiple ideas, multiple realities, really, in our head simultaneously. It’s what we do. It’s fun. And it’s the only reason we need to read.
The problem is that a few years in, life replaces it with another one.
The Factory Of Fuzzy Thinking
Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. With your head up in the sky all day, the one thing you can’t afford is fuzzy thinking. Unfortunately, back down on earth we have a lot of it, he worries:
“There’s a spelling bee and you have to spell the word ‘CAT.’ One student spells it ‘C-A-T.’ The person got it right. The next person spells it ‘K-A-T.’ That’s wrong.
The third person spells it ‘X-Q-W.’ You realize that is marked equally as wrong as the ‘K-A-T?’ When you could argue that ‘K-A-T’ is a better spelling for ‘CAT’ than ‘C-A-T.’ Dictionaries know this, because that’s how they spell it phonetically!
And so we’ve built a system for ourselves where there is an answer and everything else is not the answer, even when some answers are better than others. So our brains are absent the wiring capable of coming up with an original thought.”
Psychologists have a name for this black-and-white system of false and correct answers too: convergent thinking. What’s fuzzy about it is not so much the system itself, but the belief with which we still hold on to it. After all, the main thing that separates the 15-year-old from the 5-year-old, who’s ten times more creative, is ten years of daily education. Sure, it’s easy to be a genius when your only job is to have fun, and part of our reading less is the burden of being responsible as we grow up, but make no mistake:
School has trained our natural desire to read out of us.
In school, books suddenly become places to find answers. But looking at them is forbidden. At the same time, if it’s not in a book, it must be wrong. Don’t you dare find your own answers. And if you do, it better not be fun. It’s called homework for a reason. The internet exaggerates this. It makes cheating even easier and books look even less attractive.
It’s not that reading for comprehension and taking notes is useless. There’s a time and a place for that. But it’s no coincidence it’s in that very place that the flame of our love first started flickering. Sir Ken Robinson calls it the industrial model of education:
“I believe we have a system of education that is modeled on the interests of industrialism and in the image of it. I’ll give you a couple of examples. Schools are still pretty much organized on factory lines: ringing bells, separate facilities, specialized into separate subjects.
We still educate children by batches. We put them through the system by age group. Why do we do that? Why is there this assumption that the most important thing kids have in common is how old they are? It’s like the most important thing about them is their date of manufacture.
Well, I know kids who are much better than other kids at the same age in different disciplines. Or at different times of the day. Or better in smaller groups than in large groups. Or sometimes, they want to be on their own. If you’re interested in the model of learning, you don’t start from this production line mentality.”
In a world where anything but one instance of an idea is dangerous, all other ideas must be squashed. And how better to do that than to squash the people that have them and the places they get them from? That’s the sick, cosmic twist in our love story with reading: it may come in the box, but once it’s open, we forever struggle to keep it. Failing that, we can’t expect to just get it back.
It’s our fight and we mustn’t lose it.
There’s one big advantage to believing everything you do matters: it leaves you with zero excuse not to change. Because it’s never too late. In this case, it’s not too late to change our education system and it’s not too late to reignite our love for reading.
A similar transformation happens with our love for people as we grow up. We may never approach reading with the same, childlike innocence again, but we have one advantage over our former, naïve selves: We read not just for fun, but to live.
“Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.” ― Gustave Flaubert
Imagine The Opposite
Every day on my way home, I pass by an art gallery. There’s a mansion in its backyard. Whenever it’s dark out, I stop and peer through the gate. Over the second floor balcony, there’s a set of bright, blue, neon letters, which are only lit at night. “You can imagine the opposite.” That’s what they say.
I think that’s how we do it. How we can win. How we unlearn decades of non-creativity. By imagining the opposite. A reading experience that is effortless and guilt-free, like it was always meant to be. And the opposite of everything we learned in school is a great place to start.
1. Choose The Books You Actually Want To Read
When I was in 12th grade, our German teacher let us vote for a novel to read. It came down to Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons vs. Goethe’s Faust. I’d read the former and ended up losing the vote for the latter, but to this day, it’s the only book choice in school I remember enjoying to read. Because he actually let us choose.
Someone once asked Richard Feynman how magnets work. He didn’t really answer the question, but he explained why it’s hard to do:
“Now when you explain a ‘why,’ you have to be in some framework that you allow something to be true. Otherwise, you’re perpetually asking ‘why?’”
Teachers are told to tell students to read certain books. Chances are, they themselves never asked why, which is why they don’t like the question. As a result, the cop-out answer becomes ‘because it teaches X.’ Not only does it mean everyone’s stuck having to read some random book for some random reason, we later also transfer this nonsense model to our lives. And we never ask why. Going back to Feynman, there’s a small part of his answer that actually does address the question:
“It has to do with the fact that in iron, all the electrons are spinning in the same direction. They all get lined up and they magnify the effect of the force until it’s large enough at a distance that you can feel it.”
The next time you pick a book, pretend you’re a magnet.
You don’t need any other reason to want to read a certain book than that mysterious feeling of attraction from a distance. Not ‘because it teaches X,’ or because it’ll feel good to have read it, or because it provides some recipe to solve a problem. If you like cheesy romance, read cheesy romance. If you’re into sci-fi comics, get some of those. If you like just one book by one author, get all the others they’ve written. Make friends with them. Or Einstein. Or Steve Jobs. Read their biographies. Dead or alive, everyone likes someone.
As with magnets, you don’t need to understand the force to feel that it’s there. Or the absence of it. That is enough. Trust the force.
2. Read Books The Way You Want To Read Them
Recently, a tweet from a high school physics teacher went viral:
There are two remarkable things about this event:
- The student understood he could make his own rules.
- The teacher understood it was the right choice to let him.
Most of us never formed this understanding in school and even if we were about to, most of our teachers didn’t let us. So, as with picking books, we follow a set of unwritten rules for how, when, and where to read, long after we graduate. There are no rules how to read. There never will be and there never were.
A recent book I wanted to read was Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield. At first I read a few minutes each morning. But I wanted to read it because I felt I could use a long conversation with my friend Steve. So I waited to read the rest of it during one long ride in a train.
- If you like music, read with music. If it works for podcasts, why not? Listen to Mozart, Avicii, or underground rap. Don’t defend what works for you.
- If you read in one-page bursts, burst some more. Use your time on the toilet, or in line to wash your hands.
- If people post entire books on Twitter, read entire books on Twitter. Where they are is where they are.
- If you want to start in the middle, start in the middle. Or don’t read the middle. Read the beginning, then the end. Or all of it, page by page. The end is where you stop reading, not where the writer stopped writing.
- If you enjoy the smell of paper, don’t buy a Kindle. Get a library card. And if you hate luggage, download iBooks. Or, do both at different times.
Every minute spent in a book is a minute of culture defended.
We may not always succeed, but it’s ridiculous to think the time, or the place, or the weapons matter more than what we fight for. Rules are what got us into this quagmire in the first place. All is fair in love and war, and this battle to save our culture? It’s both.
3. Highlight Whatever Jumps At You
Magnets are also indifferent to what they attract. They don’t know whether it’s iron, nickel, cobalt, or another magnet they stick to. They just do. When we read, all highlighting should happen the same way.
Whatever seems to stick out, whatever feels important, mark it.
Forget checking the facts. Or cross-referencing answers. You can do that later, if need be. Never let it interrupt your flow. Highlighting as you go is the simplest note-taking system in the world, because it doesn’t require taking notes at all. It works perfectly, because it’s based on trusting your gut.
Highlight fiction, not just non-fiction. Read the same book twice, highlight from scratch each time, then compare the highlights later. Or highlight on your e-reader, export them, then delete them all and see which ones you remember.
As a corollary, never read a book someone else has already highlighted in. You’ll just jump on their ideas, rather than having your own. Hand your intuition the marker and let your subconscious do the work. Don’t doubt, don’t second-guess. It always delivers.
4. Treat Finished Books Like Photo Albums
Today we have infinite storage for pictures in our pocket. And we love to use it. But we never really go back to it, do we? For the thousands of pictures on my hard drive, the only photo albums I ever browse are the physical ones from my childhood days. That’s sad.
To prevent more of the same, I buy as many paper books as I can. Turning pages, carrying them around, physically marking, all that stuff is great, but it pales in comparison to being able to pick up an old friend and start to chat.
School teaches us to treat books like the Matrix treats humans: suck out every last drop of useful material, then hang them out to dry.
We never look at school books again because we don’t connect with them. We don’t care about the content, nor about the author. It’s the most damaging ‘lesson’ of them all. When we do it for its own sake, reading forms an intimate bond with another human that’s unique to us. It allows us to figure ourselves out based on who we chose to interact with.
Better yet, we do so in a way where we don’t notice the passage of time. Isn’t that how all great memories are formed? That’s what you’re really doing when you pick up an old book and flick through it. You’re healing yourself with the power of your own memories, formed with the help of a friend.
Going through a book you read a long time ago is medicine for the soul.
Take an old book from the shelf. Touch it, feel it, smell it. Remember it. And if a line, a word, a highlight draws you back in, let it. Books aren’t a finite source of energy. If you treat them with respect, they’ll keep on giving forever.
A Noble Prize For All Of Us
There’s a reason I remembered Feynman. I read about him a year ago. In my research, one thing led to another, and another, and suddenly, it came to me. Just like I learned to read. In Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, he recounts the events leading up to the work that won him the Nobel prize:
“So I got this new attitude. Now that I am burned out and I’ll never accomplish anything, I’ve got this nice position at the university teaching classes which I rather enjoy, and just like I read the Arabian Nights for pleasure, I’m going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.”
He had to see himself as a loser, naked, before he could love physics again. I imagine the first thing he did was pick up a book. Pick it, read it, mark it, flick it. Soon, he found himself back where he always belonged.
“It was effortless. It was easy to play with these things. It was like uncorking a bottle: Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it! There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was.”
Our human culture is inextricably linked to reading. Like physics, it’s an area of life we all participate in. There may be no importance to how much we read as individuals, but ultimately, there is. Because we don’t read to learn, or to laugh, or even to feel.
“We read to know we’re not alone.” ― William Nicholson