Category Archives: reading

On Not Reading

Lateral Thinking

“The few pages of this chapter have taken you a few minutes to read; they have taken me, I’m sorry to say, days and days to write. No, I haven’t been sitting at my computer the whole time. First I carried the germ around for a while, mulling over how to best approach it, then I sat down and knocked a few items onto the screen, then I began fleshing out the argument. Then I got stuck, so I made lunch or baked some bread or helped my kid work on his car, but I carried the problem of this chapter around with me the whole time. I sat down at the keyboard again and started in again but got distracted and worked on something else. Eventually I got where we are now. Even assuming equal knowledge about the subject, who probably has had the most ideas – you in five minutes of reading or me in five days of stumbling around? All I’m really saying is that we readers sometimes forget how long literary composition can take and how very much lateral thinking can go on in that amount of time.”

Thomas C. Foster

My Library

Tom Gauld’s “My Library”:

My Library

(Via Pop Loser.)

Related reading: Eco/Taleb on antilibraries, why it’s sometimes OK to skim, and how to talk about books you haven’t read.

Time to Read

Prison is a great place to get reading done:

“I started out with books that helped me make sense of the situation around me,” Genis recalled, meaning books on imprisonment: he read Papillon, Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead, Gulag narratives by Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Albert Speer’s memoir of Spandau, and Ted Conover’s Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing (four pages of which were removed by prison authorities). Then he boned up on authoritarian regimes (“Awful stuff that made me feel better by comparison”): biographies of Pol Pot, Mao, and Pinochet; histories of the Khmer Rouge and the Cultural Revolution; and Goebbels’s diaries. Having entered prison as an atheist with a moral-relativist bent, Genis next took up the problem of good and evil, scouring Pascal, Rousseau, Schopenhauer, Crime and Punishment, and Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. Lubricated with an ample dose of science fiction by William Gibson, Frederik Pohl, and Philip K. Dick—“for relaxation”—Genis’s journal was just getting going.


Related reading: Corey Robin’s “My Dirty Little Secret: I Ride the Rails to Read,” wherein he reveals that contemporary, Internet-everywhere life has become so distracting he rides the subway just so he can read:

After I drop off my daughter at school or summer camp, I jump on the subway. I ride the rails for three to four hours. Maybe the F train: out to Coney Island, back through Brooklyn, into Manhattan, out to Forest Hills, and then back. Or if I’m pressed for time, just the Q train: again out to Coney, back through Brooklyn, into Manhattan, out to Astoria, and back. Or if I’m in the mood for a change, the B or the D trains: they ultimately take me to the Bronx and back.

I take nothing with me but my book and a pen. I take notes on the front and back pages of the book. If I run out of pages, I carry a little notebook with me. I never get off the train (except, occasionally, to meet my wife for lunch in Manhattan.) I have an ancient phone, so there’s no internet or desire to text, and I’m mostly underground, so there are no phone calls.

See also: Nicholas Carr.


“I think undergraduates should be kept away from Theory at all costs. I don’t think people should be allowed to even hear the word ‘theory’ until they’re doing graduate work—for the very good reason that it’s impossible to theorize about texts before one has deep familiarity with them (not that that stopped anyone in the 1980s when I was in grad school). Undergraduates should be taught to have a clean appreciation of what texts say and how they say them, and learn how to write intelligently and clearly about that. If undergraduates had to have a model of criticism it ought to be popular criticism rather than traditional academic criticism.”

Daniel Mendelsohn

You Gotta Read

“‘The true artist,’ Wilde wrote, ‘is known by what he annexes, and he annexes everything.’ One of the most naturally gifted intellects of the 19th century, Wilde nevertheless had the modesty to know that without a commitment to literature his genius would always be an adolescent. If Melville depended upon the Western epics to augment his adventure and provide the language-stimulus for his own literature, Wilde, like Emily Dickinson, seems to have needed no adventure at all, only reading. Many novice old-timers get ensnared in that fallacy, confusing their having had a full life with their ability to write a fully functional novel, while whippersnappers of every ilk spend a summer in the Orient because they believe that being in an interesting place will make them interesting people. Think of all those dippy authors’ bios which proudly declare that X has held dozens of jobs, from the esoteric (circus clown and train conductor) to the painfully quotidian (bartender and construction worker), as if having worked at peculiar and menial labor — or, worse, as if simply living in Brooklyn — ipso facto deems him a skilled writer. It does not.”

William Giraldi

Cliff’s Notes

In my high school French class we were supposed to read Hugo’s Les Miserables. I don’t think any of us knew French well enough to make our way through this enormous book. Like the rest of the class, I just skimmed the Cliff’s Notes. When we were given a test on the book, I noticed that the questions sounded odd. They were full of long words that our teacher wouldn’t have used. Where had these questions come from? From the Cliff’s Notes, it turned out. The teacher was using them too. We were all just pretending.

Paul Graham