The Wisdom of Reading
Best of Reading & the Good Life (24 Mar at Noon EST)
Every Friday at Noon EST (Register here), Perennial Meditations readers are welcome to gather for Reading & the Good Life (a space for casual conversations on the art of living). This Friday is a special edition of Reading & the Good Life. We are concluding our exploration of The Art of Loving by the psychoanalyst and social philosopher Erich Fromm (1900-1980) and taking a look back at some of the best-selected passages from our bookshelf: New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton, No Mud, No Lotus by Thich Nhat Hanh, Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, and Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.
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The Wisdom of Reading
One of my favorite quotes about reading comes from the American philosopher Mortimer Adler, “The point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.” Similarly, Socrates believed that by employing our time with others’ writing, we could easily come by what others have labored hard for.
How do you choose your reading list? What books lead to the good life?
Reading & the Good Life is a space for connection, contemplation, and conversations on the art of living.
The Virtue of Reading
In my interview with Karen Swallow Prior, the author of On Reading Well, she explained, “Reading well is, in itself, an act of virtue, or excellence, and it also a habit that cultivates more virtue in return.”
Before I began writing this book, explained Prior, I fell in love with the classical philosophy around virtues, especially Aristotle, later Aquinas. And so when I sat down to write the book, I was really writing it in a way for me, I wanted to know what these virtues are, how they’ve been defined, and then how we see them embodied in real life.
Reading richly layered prose or poetry requires us to pay attention. It requires us to slow down, reflect, and imagine the world through other eyes. Prior revealed, “I don’t think I realized until later in life how much being a reader shaped my thinking and my perspective, and even my virtues.”
On Reading Well
The theologian C.S. Lewis advised, “It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.” Likewise, Henry David Thoreau suggested,
Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.
The Stoic philosopher Seneca also warned against reading too widely in a letter to Lucilius. Seneca stressed, “Be careful not to read many authors and every type of book. It may be that there is something wayward and unstable in it.” To read well is to stay with a limited number of writers and be fed by them if one hopes to derive anything that will dwell reliably within us.
“It is not enough to read widely. One must also read well. One must read virtuously.”
— Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well
The Magic of Books
The French philosopher Rene Descartes described reading good books this way, “The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest people of past centuries.” The astronomer Carl Sagan even went a step further — calling books a work of magic. Sagan observed,
A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called ‘leaves’) imprinted with dark-pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time — proof that humans can work magic. […]
Reading & the Good Life
Join the conversation; our next Reading & the Good Life is on Friday (24 Mar at Noon EST). Again, these weekly meetups offer space for connection, contemplation, and (casual) conversations on the art of living. This week’s meetup is a best of Reading & the Good Life; we will look back at some of the selected passages we’ve discussed over the last five months.
Selected Passages (Best of Reading & the Good Life):
Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because men are not prepared to receive them: for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity and love. […]
— Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
One of the most difficult things for us to accept is that there is no realm where there’s only happiness and there’s no suffering. This doesn’t mean that we should despair. Suffering can be transformed. As soon as we open our mouth to say ‘suffering,’ we know that the opposite of suffering is already there as well. Where there is suffering, there is happiness. […]
— Thich Nhat Hanh, No Mud, No Lotus
If, at some point in your life, you should come across anything better than justice, honesty, self-control, courage—than a mind satisfied that it has succeeded in enabling you to act rationally, and satisfied to accept what’s beyond its control—if you find anything better than that, embrace it without reservations—it must be an extraordinary thing indeed—and enjoy it to the full. […]
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. […]
— Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
And, maybe, here lies the answer to the question of why people in our culture try so rarely to learn this art, in spite of their obvious failures: in spite of the deep-seated craving for love, almost everything else is considered to be more important than love: success, prestige, money, power—almost all our energy is used for the learning of how to achieve these aims, and almost none to learn the art of loving. […]
— Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving
If you are available on a Friday (at Noon EST), feel free to drop into one of our Reading & the Good Life meetups (Register here). It’s a highly casual space for connection and conversations on the art of living.
Thank you for reading; I hope you found something useful.
Until next time, be wise and be well,
P.S. As always, feel free to comment, ask questions, or suggest future reads!