How to Read With Purpose

How to Read With Purpose

Gosh, that’s a dull title: How to Read With Purpose. I nearly fell asleep before I finished writing it, but there you go, it is actually pretty descriptive. I played with How to Read More Effectively or How to Read More Efficiently, but it’s all about purpose. 

Consider for a moment what Henry David Thoreau said:

“A truly good book…teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down and commence living on its hint … What I began by reading I must finish by acting.” 

It’s kind of what I meant when I wrote this piece about taking a break from learning so I could put any new skills into practice; put down the book and do some work.

I’ve always read, mostly fiction for the first half of my life, and then almost all non-fiction for the second half. No idea why, I’ve never analysed it but I can surmise that it might have to do with escapism for a while, followed by a voracious need to improve somehow. 

I love to learn, it keeps me awake and I mean awake in the spiritual sense rather than the opposite of heavy-lidded. Henry Ford said:

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.”

I agree.

It can get unwieldy though, there’s simply so much out there. I’ve got no chance of getting through the books on my shelf, let alone the digital backlog on my Kindle or Amazon wish-list so the only way to separate the wheat from the chaff is to filter.

I agree with Thoreau that books are where we unearth, like literary archaeologists, the knowledge that leads, along with living, to wisdom:

“A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself.”

And with Seneca, the Roman Stoic philosopher, that it’s the quality, not the content that counts:

“Desultory reading is delightful, but to be beneficial, our reading must be carefully directed.”

This is how I organise and filter my reading, a big goal for me this year:

I’m trying to read more fiction, generally the weirder the better but with a more recent focus on the classics. I’m currently enjoying Musashi; a violent, poetic and philosophical (fictional although based on historical fact) account of a Japanese samurai, who himself said: 

“Do nothing which is of no use”.

Fiction is for winding down; it helps me to sleep. Non-fiction before bedtime tends to get the forward-planning juices going and that’s not conducive to a restful sleep.

For non-fiction, I tend to use Audible (mostly when I’m driving, running or doing repetitive manual work) and can eat up the content far more effectively this way than trying to find sit-down reading time, which doesn’t really exist outside of my log cabin fantasy. Audiobooks are a learning game-changer.

With both fiction and non-fiction, I’m trying to be far more selective. This means if I’m not engaging with it, I put it down. No more “I’ve started so I’ll finish”; like bad TV, I’m ruthless, once you’ve lost me, you’ve lost me forever.

I’m aiming for more time tested wisdom, this means books that have stood the test of time. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my favourite’s, both fiction and non-fiction, tend to be around 2000 years old (the Stoics figure highly on my bookshelf); or at least anywhere from late 19th Century (Emerson, Thoreau, Lovecraft, Dickens et al) to the 50’s (Bradbury, Matheson). It’s not that there aren’t any modern classics or valuable lessons, there are plenty, but Literature seems to be unlike films and TV; antiquated cinema is 80% outdated, 20% genius, the opposite seems true of books that have stood the test of time; in my limited, subjective experience anyway.

Effective learning requires a good teacher. If your book-bound mentors are helping you to improve your life then take the time to explore the people that inspired and taught them, Seek out your mentor’s mentors. For example, I recently discovered that one of my absolute favourites, Henry David Thoreau was heavily inspired by, amongst many others, the Stoics, particularly the works of Zeno (my pup’s namesake) and Epictetus’s Enchiridion (his Manual for Living). When you follow a natural, self-driven learning path, you’ll find many poetic connections that might seem like coincidences but turn out to be inevitable coalescence.

Like everything in life, filter out the useless and amplify the purposeful: Read with purpose.


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