An Ode to Books

The joys and rewards of reading as a daily pursuit

“You are not what you write, but what you have read.” — Jorge Luis Borges. 1899–1986.

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In a letter to my newborn grandson, I had this to say about books recently:

Just promise me that you will keep reading. Read until your eyes hurt. Read until you fall asleep with the book in your hands, then wake up and read some more. Read with a flashlight under the covers at night; highly recommended.

Never stop reading. Never stop learning. That’s my first piece of advice to you. Books are not just for school; they’re your best allies for the rest of your life. I hope, and have every reason to believe, that you will live to be a hundred years old or more, prospering well into the next century. The only way you can stay relevant in that future world is if you keep learning every day between now and then. It would be presumptuous of me to tell you what knowledge you need to be successful a century from now; but what I can tell you, definitively, is that the only path to that success is through constant lifelong learning.

If there’s one activity I’ve pursued in life that I’m proud of, it’s that I’ve read practically every day — several hours a day, every single day. I used to do so at night, before falling asleep, even after a long day at work. Ever since retiring a few years ago, I find I spend much more time snuggling up with a book and enjoying it even more since my mind is not preoccupied with other matters.

Reading for work and studying for school don’t qualify in this context. I don’t care that you’re reading computer science books at school or management books at work. Good for you but that’s not reading. I’m talking about the other type of reading, the kind you do for the sheer joy of it, on top of all that other reading. First for fun as a kid, then as a hobby as a teenager, then as continuing education as an adult.

“If you cannot read all your books…fondle them — peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them, at any rate, be your acquaintances.” — Winston Churchill.

The thing about obsessive reading is that the more you read, the sweeter and more meaningful the experience becomes; and at every stage it teaches us something. If you do this, if you go on this journey with me, you’ll see that reading is not only the most rewarding experience you can have in the long run but also the most rewarding gift you could ever give yourself.

The more you read, the more you understand of what you read, the more rewards you get out of reading, the more you learn from the experience. You need to build up your reading muscles just like you build up your running muscles. The only difference is that this particular set of “muscles” is in your brain, not your body.

First you read adventure stories as a preteen. You learn about language itself, all its beautiful forms and narrative structure, from a beautifully written novel — be it Russian, British, French, or Chinese in origin. You also learn morality, whether veiled in the guise of Harry Potter or Tin Tin or Nancy Drew.

You’ll do this because you have no choice. Remember, you’re reading obsessively with me. Every day, every night — with a flashlight under a blanket or a reading lamp attached to your book — the modern equivalent of flashlights for adults.

“Reading with me is a disease.” — Theodore Roosevelt.

You will read novels and literature in your adolescence and early adult years. That’s where you learn about society at large, different cultures, love and hate, societal values and norms.

If you are lucky, like me, you’ll learn a second language and start reading — obsessively, of course — in that language as well. Language is a lens into culture. The more lenses you have at your disposal, the sharper the image that emerges.

You’ll then graduate to memoirs and biographies, travel narratives and true adventure stories — everything from Polar expeditions to African explorers to Amazon river journeys. From these, you learn how far you can push the boundaries of human experience, how varied and interesting life can be.

Later, you will graduate to history, science, philosophy, and all their wonderful progeny of topics. There is so much to read out there that you’ll never grow bored nor will you even make a dent in the vast universe of books.

I’ve read many books. Some I barely remember. Others left a great impression: I learned something from them and moved on. And then there are a few books out there that will shock you out of your stupor, that’ll open your eyes, that’ll change how you see the world; books that will grab you by the lapels and shake you, forcing you to change your entire belief system in fundamental ways. Those are the books that remain with me.

Here’s the thing about books. The same book that I admire may be one that you hated. Same words, opposite results. Why is that? The words in the book, the sentences, the lessons, the stories are identical and have been cast in proverbial concrete. Yet they leave me shaken and rethinking my approach to life while you find them boring. Think about that. The only thing different is the reader. You. And me. Our personal experiences and histories.

I’ve rarely gone back and read a book a second time at a later point in life. In the few cases that I’ve done so, books that had seemed transcendent upon a first reading were usually disappointing later in life. The words on the page hadn’t changed; I had. The opposite has happened a few times as well. A book I didn’t understand upon a first reading now seems profound. You have to be ready for the lesson… or it won’t leave a mark.

Here’s the other thing about books. You have to pay attention for it to sink in, for the lessons to stay with you. If you’re pre-occupied with your mortgage or your spouse or your work, if you interrupt yourself every five minutes to glance at your social media feed, it (the book) is not likely to make a whole lot of sense. It demands your attention — for long stretches of time. That paragraph five pages ago was crucial to understanding the book; alas, you were busy multitasking with your phone while reading it. Try that with fiction and it’s okay if you miss a page or two now and then. Try it with science or logic or history or philosophy and you’d be lost pretty quickly. The book is not boring. It only seems that way because you haven’t been paying attention.

Case in point: I met a friend of a friend once who claimed to “read a lot” — although it later became obvious that, instead, he actually listened to audiobooks exclusively. No problem. I do that sometimes. I mentioned that Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens was one of my favorites. He instantly replied: “Oh, yeah. Loved it. Read it three times!” By which he meant “listened to it” three times. I asked him, innocently, “What did you learn from it?” After several minutes of hmm’ing and haw’ing, it became obvious that he had absolutely no idea. He couldn’t remember anything about the book! In the end, exasperated, he exclaimed: “Can you give me a hint? I’m sure it’ll come back to me.” He hadn’t been reading. Or, for that matter, even listening.

If you read obsessively for four or five decades, like I have, you end up reading a lot. I stopped reading fiction almost twenty years ago and don’t miss it. These days, I find factual narratives, historical accounts, science books, and non-fiction of all kinds a lot more interesting than novels. As Mark Twain said, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”

It would be a mistake to get stuck in any one genre your whole life — only reading novels, say. It would also be a mistake to give up and just stop reading altogether— like many people do once they get out of school. According to the Pew Research Center, fully one quarter of all American adults say they haven’t read a single book in the past year. They don’t know what they’re missing. It’s only through a dedication — an obsession — with life-long education — on a daily basis and through books — that we remain relevant. That we learn, that we grow.

Or, you could go watch TV and play video games. I’m asking for roughly the same investment in time. Your pick.

Former CTO of VMware, former VP at Microsoft, recovering long distance runner, avid cyclist, newly minted grandpa.

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