Read a Book

Nothing is less welcome than unsolicited good advice. It comes with too many negative assumptions, like I know better, and you don’t.

I don’t like it when someone tells me I should give up cigars and take up soccer. I am well aware that the best advice in the world will be resented and ignored if not offered with humility and grace.

Such delicate manners have never been my strong suit, but meager though they are, I am willing to exhaust my supply to share one invaluable insight that has made my life richer, and could do the same for you, I humbly believe.

Read a book. Get into the habit of reading lots of books. I prefer non-fiction, you may be more disposed to the novel, but whatever your taste, the solace and concentration offered by a book is the perfect antidote to the strobing barrage of random data that exhausts our senses daily.

Technology is constantly changing, the stuff that worked yesterday doesn’t work today. Only a teenager can face the virtual future without dread, and none of us stays a teen for long.

You can’t keep up. But you can rise above by burrowing down, deep into the bedrock of human knowledge. There are endless treasures there, there are books.

There were books before there was paper, books before type, books on clay tablets and animal-skin scrolls. Books are the place the accumulated wisdom of the ages gets passed down through the ages, and they continue doing so today, in the age of smartphones and self-driving everything.

Religious people call it “the Good Book.” Various religions may differ on the good part, but they all have “The Book.”

For big ideas, well thought out, thoroughly argued, complex enough to engage and even change a mind, nothing yet invented is better than the book.

The medium may change, from papyrus to Kindle, but the message is always the same. One human intellect connecting across space and time with another human intellect, through the magic of words.

With the flood of junk information that swirls all around us, sometimes it feels like we’re drowning. It’s happening to our culture, our politics, in the mindless violence we cannot stop and the insipid arguments we are obliged to endure. Swimming against that tide is exhausting and debilitating. Get out while you still can. Go where the knowledge is organized, systematic, intelligently argued and persuasive.

That level of thought only appears in books. That antiquated, obsolete, unfashionable, indispensable method of human information and emotional transfer.

Think of it this way. The raw material of human comprehension is like gold dust in a vast mountain of dirt. An author mines that dirt for the precious metal he or she wants to show you. The author’s done the work, concentrating the value out of endless piles of dross. He’s done that work for you.

You’d be a fool to reject that gift, right?

The everyday insults to our intelligence add up, degrading our ability to learn with purpose, with contemplative skepticism, leaving our minds adrift. Understanding is a skill and skills decay with misuse or no use.

Books are the cure for our current plague of information indigestion. A book will bring you back to your senses. You become your own property again, not Facebook’s, but yours.

I’m semi-retired. I can, and do, dedicate two or three hours a day to reading books. It is one of the greatest pleasures of my life. You’re probably younger and still struggling with the demands of work and family, fighting to keep body and soul together. But I bet there is an hour or two you waste daily staring at a screen filled with noise and fury, signifying nothing.

Take some of that time to get your head above water. Try to make a habit of reading a book. Steal half an hour. Start with one book, then read another. If you make it that far, I won’t have to cajole you into keeping up with the habit.

You are more than a point in a vast database. You are a person, with, to use the philosophical term, agency. Exercise that agency by putting your mind to conscious use. Learn something, study something, confront a long-form argument, read and make judgements. You can do those things in a book.

Or, you can remain a target demographic for whatever your phone wants to sell you today, and all the todays to come, forever. Your choice.

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