Kafka called books “the axe for the frozen sea within us”; Maria Popova, in a piece about Margaret Mead and James Baldwin, refers to them as “the axe the frozen sea between us”; “a reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, [and] the man who never reads lives only one”, said George Martin; and to Stephen King books are “a uniquely portable magic”.
Whilst I find reading an absolute pleasure, the books I get the most from are those that frustrate me the most; like any form of learning in life, it’s the endurance of the painful stuff that makes the difference: chewing the glass, walking over volcanic hot coals, teetering on the edges of insanity as you try to decode what the author is saying, battle with a complex problem, nailing the moonwalk, the worm, or the floss.
In fact, I actually think 99% of the reading one does should be of books that frustrate. What kind of books are these? Typically they those that cover a subject of interest, but contain material that is almost entirely above and beyond you. The almost is important; if what you read is complete gibberish to you, you may as well watch an episode of spongebob. That said, sometimes spongebob should be watched; occasionally exposing yourself to alien works — including those in which you have zero interest — can only serve to expand your horizons. Kierkegaard provides us the antidote for the inevitable emotions of overwhelm and confusion that flood in as we tackle these books:
Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.
You may not finish the introduction of hard books without wanting to tear them up and shower the crowd beneath your balcony with delicate pieces of despair. This is a crime under the 20181Librarian Act For Worldly Wisdom.2 The universe rewards endurance. To see how, let’s imagine for a second that you have just struggled your way through David Deutsch’s brilliant book The Beginning of Infinity, and you are thoroughly convinced that you have learned nothing: you can remember only that explanations are important; everything else is a blur. The question: have you not learned anything? The answer: undoubtedly. Firstly, provided you did Read the book, deep in the fibres of your subconscious are the books main arguments (if only for the fact that Deutsch lays them out in bullets at the end of each chapter):
- Science — human knowledge — is about better explanations.
- There is nothing we know for certain; truth is the word we use for explanations of phenomena that (currently) cannot be bettered.
- Anything that is not forbidden by natural laws is achievable. This includes machines that can create limbs and organs, and human colonisation of the universe; but not invisibility, barefoot walking over water, or unaided Human flight.
- We are always at the Beginning of Infinity.
- Conjecture is the origin of all human knowledge.
- The progression of knowledge is fundamentally dependant on a tradition of criticism.
Should you encounter these arguments again in the future — which, remember you didn’t remember! — you will almost certainly recognise them; the dormant knowledge will come to life. This process of recall is how our knowledge is strengthened. People think learning is about remembering; but learning is about forgetting, and then recalling.
Because you have encountered the arguments once, you’ll have an easier time comprehending them on your next encounter. The unforeseeable consequences of which include: you may pick up another book very similar in the near future, which presents the arguments in a light shines brighter to you than Deutsch’s did; you may want to reread the book out of frustration; you may finally be able to start a conversation with your crush, who is a physics major. Most of the magic happens at the subconscious (or unconscious) level.
Secondly, completing a book that does nothing but bewilder you will, paradoxically, strengthen a very important muscle. The name for this muscle varies: it has been referred to as focus, concentration, discipline, execution, confidence, self-esteem, and many other such names. But the name doesn’t matter; what matters is the feeling. Abraham Maslow once said something like “there is nothing quite like to feeling of achievement that follows mastery of a subject or task”. If we scale this down to the simple act of reading a book the ideas still holds: the feeling of completing something hard is a good feeling.
Now, without doubt there are some people — me being one — who have to also complete that hard thing well, e.g., who have to consciously feel that they understood the book, otherwise they feel worse. The ultimate antidote, of course, is to jump back in and read the book until it is understood. This option, however, may not only be counterproductive (primarily to morale), but also unnecessary. Again, the magic happens subconsciously; the conscious knowledge that you completed the book will bring confidence and strengthen your ability to tackle complex ideas, and the subconscious familiarity with the ideas in question will serve you in the future in ways that you cannot currently foresee.
A piece by the magnificent Maria Popova brought me headfirst into a Kafka quote that I just can’t let go:
I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.
Claiming no kinship whatsoever, it appears me are Kafka are in the same boat atop this particular ocean.
What about reading for pleasure? Is there a place for marvel comics, cheesy romance novels and Take A Break magazines? What about blogs, self-help books and the news? What about Mr Pine’s Purple House? If there is one thing I feel strongly about it is this. My answer is an absolute, unconditional and categorical Yes. More important than reading hard books is the act of reading itself; for even if your interests do not naturally expand into other subjects or forms of writing, there is still value in marvel comics and romance novels. This value is subjective, but to take an example consider a young kid who takes up an obsessive interest in Stan Lee’s stories: his imagination will be exercised and developed, and he’ll learn how to read — while having a ball of a time!
All this being said, I find it hard to think of anything worse for the encouragement of a reading habit — in adult or child — than forced reading of text written in gibberish. Hence, if you’re hoping to develop a reading habit, subjecting yourself to the torture of reading books that make not an ounce of sense is probably not a good idea; better to read something you’re attracted to, however easy, and gradually expose yourself to new and more challenging texts. Of course, if there is a question or problem that is burning a hole in your heart, nothing soothes like finding the answer; sometimes you just have to sit down and endure the pain until it disappears.
- This act was proposed and immediately established by Jai Preston. Legend has it that the idea for the act came to him as if my magic as he wrote a piece about books he’d recently read.
- Even bad books are protected by this act; they are the perfect antimodels.