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  • The modern world firmly equates the intelligent person with the well-read person. Reading

  • books, a lot of books, has become the hallmark of brilliance as well, apparently, as the

  • supreme gateway to understanding. If we don't read four of this year's major prize winning

  • books as well as maybe seven fascinating titles that have received ardent reviews in the Sunday

  • supplements since March, then we'll be condemned to guilt and shame.

  • Yet amidst this pressure to eat our way through an ever-larger number of titles, we

  • might pause to reflect on a fascinating aspect of the pre-modern world: this world never

  • put people under any pressure to read very much at all. Reading was held to be extremely

  • important, but the number of new books one read was entirely by the by. This wasn't

  • principally an economic point. Books were very expensive of course, but this wasn't

  • really the issue. What mattered was to read a few books very well, not squander one's

  • attention promiscuously on a great number of volumes.

  • The premodern world directed us to read so little because it was obsessed by a question

  • that modernity likes to dodge: what is the point of reading? And it had answers. To take

  • a supreme example, Christians and Muslims located the value of reading in a very specific

  • and narrow goal: the attainment of holiness. To read was to try to approximate the mind

  • of God. In each case this meant that one book, and one book only - the Bible or the Koran

  • - was held up as vastly and incomparably more important than any other. To read this book,

  • repeatedly and with great attention, probably five or so pages every day, was thought more

  • crucial than to rush through a whole library every week; in fact reading widely would have

  • been regarded with suspicion, because most other books would - to some extent - have

  • to prove misleading and distracting.

  • Similarly, in the Ancient Greek world, one was meant to focus in on a close knowledge

  • of just two books: , because these were deemed the perfect repository of the Greek code of

  • honour and the best guides to action in military and civilian affairs.

  • We can pick up some of this minimalist attitude to reading in early visual depictions

  • of one of the heroes of Christian scholarship, St Jerome - who was by all accounts the supreme

  • intellect of Christendom, a man who translated the Greek and Hebrew portions of the Bible

  • into Latin, wrote a large number of commentaries on scripture and is now the patron saint of

  • libraries and librarians. But despite all his scholarly efforts, when it came to showing

  • where and how St Jerome worked, one detail stands out: there are almost no books in his

  • famous study. Strikingly, the most intelligent and thoughtful intellectual of the early church

  • seems to have read fewer things than an average modern eight year old.

  • Antonello da Messina, St Jerome in his study, 1475

  • The modern world has dramatically parted ways with this minimalist ancient approach

  • to reading. We have adopted an Enlightenment mantra that runs in a very different direction,

  • stating that there should be no limit to how much we read because, in answer to the question

  • of why we do so, there is only one response that will ever be encompassing or ambitious

  • enough: we read in order to know everything.

  • But we can hazard an observation: this exhaustive approach to reading does not make

  • us particularly happy. So in order to ease and simplify our lives, we might dare to ask

  • a very old-fashioned question: what am I reading for? And this time, rather than answering

  • 'in order to know everything,' we might parcel off a much more limited, focused and

  • useful goal. We might - for example - decide on a new mantra to guide our reading henceforth:

  • we might want to read in order to learn to be content. Nothing less - and nothing more.

  • With this new, far more targeted ambition in mind, much of the pressure to read constantly

  • and randomly starts to fade. Once we know that we are reading to be content, we don't

  • need to chase every book published this season. We can zero in on titles that best explain

  • what we deem to be the constituent parts of contentment. So for example, we may need a

  • few key books that will explain our psyches to us, that will teach us about how families

  • work and how they might work better, that can take us through how to find a job we can

  • love or how to develop the courage to develop our opportunities. We'll probably need some

  • books that talk about friendship and love, sexuality and health. Some books that gently

  • guide us to how to minimise regret and learn to die well.

  • The more we understand what reading is for us, the more we can enjoy intimate relationships with a few works only. The truly well-read person isn't the one who has read a gargantuan

  • number of books, it's someone who has let themselves be deeply shaped by just a few,

  • very few well-chosen titles.

The modern world firmly equates the intelligent person with the well-read person. Reading

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How To Read Fewer Books

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    林宜悉 posted on 2020/11/11
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