Reading fetishists like to tell you to read. I am not a reading fetishist. If you can do, do instead of read. If you can learn through apprenticeship, learn through apprenticeship instead of read. If given the opportunity to sop up the wisdom found around fire pits, in workshops, at fishing holes, in smokey barrooms, or amidst the rubble of your own personal and professional failures, choose that instead.
The fetishists would have you believe that reading, by its very nature, makes you better and smarter and well-informed, whatever is being read. It doesn’t. They would have you believe it is automatically better than watching reality TV or wasting time on the internet. It is not. In fact, I suspect it’s worse because I’ve not known reality TV watchers or internet time wasters to be under the delusion that they are morally or intellectually superior because of their chosen vices. They are well aware that they are wasting their time on trivial entertainment, and they don’t care that others know it, too. The fetishists have no such self-awareness, whether laboring through the latest trendy fantasy epic, or burning through frivolous romances and young adult fiction. It’s one thing to love reading, and another entirely to think being seen as a reader somehow makes you interesting or superior.
I’m not against reading. I’m against the fetishism that says, "Bad books are actually good books because I have read them."
I support reading garbage that you—under no delusions of grandeur—know is garbage.
But I am especially for reading well.
Rules for Reading Well
How can you be sure you’re reading well?
The whole history of man has produced enough quality books that you could easily read a worthwhile volume every week and die before you come close to running out. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that recent history has manufactured enough mindless, money-grabbing garbage that you could easily read three volumes per day and die before ever finding anything vaguely virtuous, redeemable, smart, or edifying.
I don’t purport to be an expert on choosing good books, but I am an expert at quitting bad ones. The bad ones have common features which might be used to outline some general rules about what to look for in the good ones.
These rules are not the only rules, and they could not be rules if they could not be broken by certain exceptions. So, use your experience and good judgment when choosing a book. But in general, these rules are reliable.
Rule 1: Read Old Books
The older a book, the more likely that book is to be worthwhile. If a book resonates with humanity on some deep level, if it reveals practical wisdom, or spiritual wisdom, or expresses some truth about human nature, it will be remembered. And it will be valuable.
Garbage is generally forgotten because not enough people care about it, and the one’s who care about it don’t really care about it all that much.
History causes the best of the best to rise to the top, to continue to be read long after its intended audience has faded away. These works contain essential truth or essential beauty, and often both.
What qualifies as "old" is up for interpretation. I would consider C.S. Lewis’s work "old", though it’s still less than a century removed from us. However, I will say that often the longer it’s lasted, the better it is.
Time is the primary way of defining old books, but there is another way, which leads to Rule #2.
Rule 2: Read New Books that Address Old Wisdom to Modern People
After you’ve read enough old books, you develop at least a vague sense of what might be called eternal truths. The old books often express the same wisdom in different ways and to different audiences, but it’s the same wisdom.
Likewise, there are new books that are worthwhile especially because they’ve taken proven beauty and proven truth and arranged it in a way that it addresses the concerns, strengths, and deficiencies of modern people. They do their best to say, "Here’s the truth, and here is how we can apply it in our context."
The problem with this is that, like a fish in water, these works can be subliminally steeped in the fads and fashions of modernity without knowing it. In addressing modern people, they can coddle modern people with whatever heresies we’ve adopted. Where the older wisdom is rigorous and politically incorrect, its contemporary adaptation might be lax, watered down, and "nice." This can be a blessing and a curse. It may remove something inessential to the essential wisdom, or it may add something that is untrue. That’s for the reader to discern.
But even in the worst scenario, I believe reading new books that have adapted old wisdom is still beneficial, if for no other reason than they point to their sources and if you care to have the unbiased, unfiltered truth—if you care to have the whole picture—you can have it.
Men should read Epictetus and Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, but Ryan Holiday’s "The Obstacle is the Way" or "Ego is the Enemy" could provide them with an excellent introduction that shows them how a 21st century suburban desk jockey might benefit from the wisdom of a slave or an emperor.
Men should read Evagrius Ponticus, his list of assaultive thoughts, his remedies for sin, but Dr. Nicole Roccas’s "Time and Despondency" could provide them with an introduction to how this wisdom might be borrowed from the 4th century desert monasteries and used to combat contemporary errors of Psychology and to defeat the nihilism cultivated by busy materialism and mindless consumerism.
Books like this are well worth your time.
Rule 3: Limit Fiction
Some of the best books I’ve read are fiction books, and that is precisely because good fiction books are extremely rare. So when I find a good one, I’ve automatically found an exceptionally good one.
Take a look at the bestseller pages on Amazon’s Kindle store. After wading through pages of shirtless men, vampires, and spaceships, you’ll realize most of the bestselling fiction today is just a rehashing of some better story that made money. They might be entertaining, but you’re not better off once you’ve finished them.
And that’s what most fiction is at best: pleasant but forgettable entertainment. At worst, they subtly promote all the errors of today while only hinting at, parodying, or criticizing the eternal truths that can transform us for the better. They evangelize, normalize, and justify the modern heresies. This is even truer today, publishing being the business that it is. Fiction is written in order to sell the greatest number of copies to people who are quite happy about their sins and vices and are only interested in being distracted or feeling good about themselves. Nothing too deep. Nothing too challenging. It’s not written to get them thinking, it’s written to make them forget. That’s what sells, that’s what’s written.
So for that reason, I’d suggest avoiding fiction for the most part. If you are in the mood for it, see Rule 1. There’s plenty of good old fiction. And if you are interested in reading newer fiction, see Rule 2.
A few of my favorites are: