No, there are not too many good books to read
Counsels to read more of less
Rolf Dobelli, “Read Less But Read It Twice”1
Francis Bacon, “Of Studies”2
Arthur Schopenhauer, “On Books and Reading”3
Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; grant us that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them;
-Thomas Cranmer, Book of Common Prayer, Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent
Too Many Good Books?
I regularly hear people who love reading complain that there are “too many good books to read.” This essay is to persuade you that this is not true: there are plenty of good books to read, but nowhere near too many (for you).
Recently, on a discussion forum I frequent, I posted a link to Rolf Dobelli’s essay “Read Less But Read It Twice” (alternately titled “How to Read a Book”). In the essay, Dobelli protests against idle reading, reading that makes no real impression or change in us, but merely amuses and diverts us. Reading, he insists, is not the same kind of activity as eating or sex. Reading both can and should make us wiser and better, otherwise it is a waste of our ever diminishing time.4
Dobelli develops his idea using the metaphor of a transit punch card. Imagine, he says, that you have a reading card with fifty spaces. Before you start reading a book, even one you won’t finish, you have to punch one space. Once you’ve used up all fifty spaces, that’s it: you can read no new books for the rest of your life. What would you read, and how would you read, and reread, if this were the case? What titles on your To Read list would you abandon, and which ones would you add?
As a practice, Dobelli proposes nothing so radical. Instead, he challenges his readers to read less books, and read each book twice in succession. To someone who loves to read, this limitation sounds impossible, but I think it is a brilliant idea. The discussions that followed my post, however, led me to see that it is easy to misunderstand.
The most common way people misunderstand Dobelli is to believe he is asking us to reread books merely in order to recall more of their contents - to be able to recite sentences, pages, and chapters. This is their internal model of what rereading is for, perhaps learned from painful rounds of rote memorization in school. But that is not Dobelli’s proposal.
Reading a book a second time is not like the empty (and depressing) memorization feats competitors at the World Memory Champions demonstrate: recall of dozens of decks of cards in order and strings of thousands of random numbers, the memorization of which are clearly without a point. Rather, it’s a deeper, more considered level of reading. Once you know the structure of a book, where it’s going, how it develops its thesis or plot, you will be able to start deriving real insights from the text, to truly interact with it. You'll be able to start thinking your own thoughts about the material, rather than having the author think for you:5
Time and again I am surprised at how much one absorbs when one reads slowly and with concentration, how much one discovers that is new the second time round and how much one’s understanding deepens as a result of such careful reading … The key word here is immersion. Immersion – the opposite of surfing.
-Rolf Dobelli, “Read Less But Read It Twice”
“Sure,” you could say, “some books benefit from reading again. But why not follow Francis Bacon’s advice about reading: save the deep reading for some, but don’t limit how much you read otherwise?”
The advice you are thinking of, unnamed reader, was most eloquently proposed by Francis Bacon in his essay “Of Studies”:
Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.
I think Dobelli is on to something with his idea that we should stop reading the books that are to be only tasted or swallowed.6 In fact, I found it so inspiring I made it my New Year’s resolution: to read only books I intend to read twice. It’s the basis for fully half the essays you will find in this Substack: essays I wrote based on what rereading led me to think about.
To elaborate on this point a bit more, it helps to distinguish levels and purposes for reading. In “Of Studies”, Bacon identifies three:
Studies serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability
Fleshing out Bacon's list, you can read (in ascending order of quality) for:
Ornament: to say you have read the book, to impress others and yourself. Reading the books that are in the New York Times, talked about in periodicals like the New Yorker, and are the subject of many essays and blog posts.
Degenerate Case: pretending you have read the book of the moment, or some classic everyone is expected to have read. Just like claiming to be an original thinker:7 usually no one will ask for proof that you have.
Education: to pass a test of knowledge or to write an essay for school.
Hatred: to review the book, particularly if you are going to engage in a “hysterical hate read,” trashing a book and its author for the amusement (but not edification) of your readers.8 In book reviewing, hate is more powerful than love, as shown by how few essays praising books have come down to us, while those that pour on scorn are preserved and venerated.9
Delight: to enjoy a book. Applies equally to fiction and nonfiction.
Ability: to learn how to do something, from cooking a lobster or building a log cabin to separating radioisotopes or solving partial differential equations. Also to learn facts and causal relationships in subjects like history or physics. Note that Ability is distinct from mere Education. In Education the learning serves the purpose of test taking and grade making. With ability you genuinely learn something, and it persists with you beyond any exam.
Thinking: to interact with a book, absorb it deeply, and use it to think your own thoughts.
It is this last way of reading that I believe is most valuable, and for which it is worth foregoing all the others (though of course one can Delight in a book while gaining Ability and Thinking). It is only truly possible with rereading.
As noted above, the payoff of rereading a book is not linear. You don't learn 5% of a book the first time you read it, and an additional 5% each time you reread. Rather, the growth is more like 5% on a first reading, 30% on a second, 75% on a third, and so on.
The knowledge you gain from the reading of a book is not fixed - it decays with time as we lose our memory of it. The books we read when we were teenagers may, in some vague, hand waving way, “help shape who we are…” but if we cannot recall an incident, a line of argument, or even choice sentences of prose, I’m not sure it’s had much effect on us. To constantly be reading new books without rereading is to keep adding to a declining stock, like pouring more water into a leaking bucket. Rereading a book not only fixes more of it in your mind, your repeated interactions will create new ideas.
Of course, knowledge is not quantitative in nature:10 knowing the ideas of a 19th century Danish philosopher is not the same as knowing atomic physics. But knowing both can open the door to new insights. Niels Bohr read and reread Kierkegaard's philosophical works throughout his life, obsessing over the idea of “leaps of faith,” of the move from one state of being to another without a gradual transition, like in religious conversion experiences. When he was pondering how to explain the behavior of electrons orbiting an atomic nucleus, he hit upon the idea that electrons jump up orbits when they absorb energy, and release energy when they move down orbits. The jumps are not smooth but sudden, without transition, “leaps.” This “solar system” model of the atom has since been superseded, but it led Bohr to mathematical descriptions of energy absorption and emission that pointed the way for new experiments, and from there to new discoveries and better theories. It’s difficult in Bohr’s case to imagine the idea would have stuck with him enough to influence his thought if he had merely skimmed Stages on Life’s Way as an undergraduate to write a term paper, then thrown it up on his shelf to gather dust.11
Different books have different amounts of knowledge/meaning/content. Hamlet is deeper than a contemporary young adult paperback novel. A textbook on climatology has more to teach you than a popular science book on climate change, and the same goes for the Feynman Lectures on Physics compared to any popular science book on quantum mechanics or general relativity.12 In Search of Lost Time is better than almost all sets of books you could compile that equal the word count of Proust’s opus.13 You can read many more of the latter types of books in the time it takes you to read the former ones (to say nothing of rereading) but it is time better spent to read and reread the deeper, more complex ones. For any field you are interested in, there is usually a best book or select few books, the reading and rereading of which will give you more insight than all the rest put together.14 This applies even with single authors: rereading their best book is often more valuable than reading their entire bibliography. With Shakespeare, for example, you’re not missing much skipping Timon of Athens.
Rereading halts and reverses the decay of knowledge in the mind. When we have the thoughts of an author more available to us, and have interacted with them, they are more than facts rattling around in our head for regurgitation - the last being a model that primary and secondary schools, and even postsecondary education, promotes far too much. They combine with other things we read and experience, and from them we make new thoughts, ones that are truly our own.
An Aside on Crap
It is the same in literature as in life. Wherever one goes one immediately comes upon the incorrigible mob of humanity. It exists everywhere in legions; crowding, soiling everything, like flies in summer. Hence the numberless bad books, those rank weeds of literature which extract nourishment from the corn and choke it.
-Arthur Schopenhauer, “On Reading and Books”
Put more succinctly:
Ninety percent of everything is crap.
Crap is everywhere, in every genre of book. It’s not necessarily “bad” - objectionable, noxious, revolting, hateful, insulting to the intellect and taste, a danger to morals and civilization.15 It’s just mediocre, indistinguishable, the way that, well, crap is the homogenized waste products expelled by an organism’s digestive tract. What’s interesting, in looking at different genres, is where the level of crap lies, and how high or low the exceptions are - what the arithmetic mean of the set is, and how extreme the outliers are.
Consider cookbooks: holding cooking skills fixed, a mediocre cookbook helps you make recipes that are, to quote your dinner guests discussion on their drive home, “fine.” An excellent cookbook can help you make meals that your guests are still genuinely praising after subtracting the influence of the wine they all drank. A bad cookbook is one that contains incorrect ratios for ingredients or inaccurate cooking times, leading to bad baking and botched broiling. The variance between cookbooks is not high - there’s a basic level of competence required to attract a publisher. The world's greateat cookbook is not notably better than the middle of the range. Unless you're a chef, just about any cookbook is preferable to no cookbook.
There are mediocre textbooks that are not wrong, just a slog to get through, mediocre novels that can fill a long plane journey, but which we forget and never think about again, and there are mediocre biographies which get no facts wrong but just are not engaging.
In publishing, mediocrity depends on what the market will bear. Sturgeon’s comment above is a retort to a literary critic who declared that ninety percent of science fiction was crap. He replied by pointing out that ninety percent of literary fiction was crap as well. The issue is whether the crap in science fiction is of lower average quality than the crap in, say, contemporary literary fiction, the works that seek but fail to win the National Book Award or the Booker Prize. Certainly the market for science fiction (and fantasy) is larger than the market for literary fiction, and it stands to reason that a larger market has more undiscriminating consumers. The number of serial fantasy series in their 10th or 20th volume attests to this undemanding demand. I would argue that (and will fight to the death on this hill) the very best science fiction and fantasy novels match or exceed the best ‘realistic’ fiction.16 It’s mean may be below literary fiction’s, but its peaks (and yes, valleys) exceed many of the works of literature we are often told are the very best.
The Personal Canon
Often, in essays about reading, the writer includes a list of books “you”must” read. I will not be doing so, both from an allergy to the listicle format and from possession of a secret truth: the books “you” need to read are situational, not fixed eternally. If you, like I, cannot read Mandarin, there’s no use being recommended a classic of Chinese literature unless it has a particularly stellar translation into English. The same goes for books outside of your range of competence or interest. Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher & Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid is a deep, enlightening book, a work of true genius, but one I could not recommend to someone without a deep interest in computer science, logic, and mathematics (also Baroque music, Lewis Carroll stories, and Zen). The same goes for Hamlet to someone who struggles with contemporary English.
In other words, I think there is a canon of truly great books, but each person’s needs from that list are individual. My needs are not the same as yours, though I hope in reading my Twice Read Books essays you will find at least a few titles that interest you and that you will benefit from.17
Rather than a specific list of books, I will recommend a heuristic: the older a book is, the more valuable it is. Plenty of pretend original thinkers, mere contrarians, scoff at the popular consensus about books, but err if they do not realize that the consensus grows more accurate and truth-preserving as the books under consideration get older. If a book has been praised for much of history since its publication, it’s worth your time to read it. Even more obscure works, ones that were popular until recently, can be extremely rewarding. Prize winners from earlier decades in a range of genres are also often worth your reading time.
Reading Too Much
I have met people bragging about how many books they are ‘reading’ now that they have audio books or are reading on their e-reader on the bus to school or work. The most awful examples are click bait essays with titles like “I Read 200 Books Last Year. Here is How It Changed Me as a Person” or “I Read 100 Books Last Summer, and You Should Too.” While it’s certainly “reading”, in the sense of words going into a brain, it treats words read per day or week or year as a more important target than understanding or meaningful engagement. Having x words read per day > 0 is good, but the value of those words declines as you pour on more and more. And again, the quality of what you’re reading and how you are reading it matters. To speed read the works of Shakespeare in a month is the equivalent of not having read them at all.
Let the final example above serve as the reductio ad absurdum of the idea that there are too many good books to read. Reading more is not valuable unless you are reading well.
Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider
-Francis Bacon, “Of Studies”
Weirdly, in some of the forums I posted Dobelli's essay to, commenters often used food-based analogies - “I love to eat, but I don't need to remember every dinner I've ever had.” I was left wondering whether they had read the essay, or just responded to its title and my brief synopsis.
Schopenhauer has some (typically) acid thoughts on the value of merely reading books:
When we read, someone else thinks for us; we repeat merely his mental process. It is like the pupil who, when learning to write, goes over with his pen
the strokes made in pencil by the teacher. Accordingly, when we read, the work of thinking is for the most part taken away from us. Hence the noticeable relief when from preoccupation with our thoughts we pass to reading. But while we are reading our mind is really only the playground of other people’s ideas; and when these finally depart, what remains? The result is that, whoever
reads very much and almost the entire day but at intervals amuses himself with thoughtless pastime, gradually loses the ability to think for himself.
-Arthur Schopenhauer, “On Reading and Books”
Schopenhauer is thinking of reading without reflection, without taking time to consider what we have read. He thinks it is as vital as the time we spend reading, if not more so.
Except insofar as we need them for academic studies or work.
More on original thinking, and its substitutes, in my essay Let’s Stop Pretending We Are Original Thinkers.
You will never read one of those here. Life is too short to hate on books when I could be reading better ones.
The greatest of all of which is Mark Twain’s “James Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences”, which bears the rare distinction of serving for both Delight and Ability, as it is a tutorial on how to write well by focusing on the “Do Not Do’s” a once famous author got away with.
Quantitative, in this case, means bit for bit indistinguishable.
Of course, whether this would have held back the development of atomic physics is another matter and unknowable. Though given the number of brilliant people thinking very hard about the issue I suspect someone else would have come to a similar, orbit jumping idea but from another direction. Their formulation may not have been as suggestive of new theories and experiments, though.
Here is a test of popular science books you can try: while reading, keep a tally of how many pages are about a concept, or about the experiments used to figure something out, or about the implications for humanity, versus how many are about the personalities of the people involved - the family tragedy that drove the plucky, lacrosse-loving MD to pursue new cancer drugs, the pet polar bear that inspired the climatologist to speak out about anthropogenic global warming, and so on. Before I stopped reading them altogether I noticed that the ratio is often very high, sometimes 1:1, or even 3:1 of social/personal over concepts and ideas.
The high ratio of personal to conceptual is a sign that most popular science books exist not to convey a broad understanding of a new discovery to an interested audience, but to give them tokens to exchange in social games: to have anecdotes to drop into conversation. I lost count, somewhere in graduate school, how many times the conversation swung back from a philosopher’s ideas (which I wanted to discuss) to quirks of their personal or romantic life (which were more relatable to more people).
A fun set building problem: the complete work contains 1,267,069 words (in French). One combination: you could read War & Peace (~600,000 words in most English translations) twice, but better to read them both twice, displacing many lesser books.
When I was working on my master’s thesis, the most valuable thing I read was a less than 5 page paper by Peter Geach, the rereading of which showed me the path to my main argument, and means to argue against all the others papers I read that took the contrary position.
There are books like this. We won’t be talking about them in this newsletter.
Said Gene Wolfe, the Joyce/Proust/Melville/Faulkner of speculative fiction: “Realistic fiction is typically about a married couple, both college teachers. He’s cheating on her with a student, so she cheats on him with whoever’s handy. Angst abounds. How true is that story for the bulk of humankind? Realistic fiction leaves out far, far too much.”
If you want straightforward reviews of those books, you can find them in innumerable places on the Internet.