Did Schopenhauer Think Reading is Bad for You? (yes, sort of)
“If a man does not want to think, the safest plan is to take up a book directly he has a spare moment.”
Contrary to popular perceptions reading is alive and well, with Americans reading on average about four books a year. Sure, it would be nice if that number were higher, but in an age of online immersion, the fact that people still carve out some space to curl up with a book is encouraging.
For most of us, reading is an escape from not only the stresses of the modern world but also from the boredom of our lives. I do believe these are worthy reasons to read. However, I'm going to throw something out there for consideration that may seem like nonsense, namely that too much reading can actually be bad for you.
Several years ago I was reading a short collection of essays by German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. One of those essays was entitled On Reading and Books which I thought would be an ego-stroking ode to my own life-long love affair with books. I've been a voracious reader since I was a kid and have always lived in a house filled with books. That must mean I'm a pretty smart guy, right? Though I never said so out loud, my book collection was a subtle way of signaling to the world that, 'Behold! Here Resides an Intellectual!'
I should have known, though, that dour Schopenhauer was not the guy to offer such flattery. On the contrary, he argued that much of the reading we do is poison to critical thought. This caught me by surprise. For example:
“And so it happens that the person who reads a great deal—that is to say, almost the whole day, and recreates himself by spending the intervals in thoughtless diversion, gradually loses the ability to think for himself; just as a man who is always riding at last forgets how to walk. Such, however, is the case with many men of learning: they have read themselves stupid. For to read in every spare moment, and to read constantly, is more paralyzing to the mind than constant manual work, which, at any rate, allows one to follow one's own thoughts” (1).
And, “If a man does not want to think, the safest plan is to take up a book directly he has a spare moment” (2).
Schopenhauer had contempt for our over-estimation of book smarts and those who puff themselves up with book learning. The image of people "reading themselves stupid" was one that stuck with me. That hit kind of close to home. Looking back, I'm pretty sure I sounded a lot like Ron Burgundy, with his many leather-bound books and apartment smelling of rich mahogany.
According to Schopenhauer, reading becomes a means of escaping, not only from reality but from thinking itself. Reading does not automatically equal thinking. No, in fact, the opposite is often true. Reading equals thinking someone else's thoughts. That's a big difference. Over time we end up regarding ourselves as "well-read," and maybe there's a university degree or two to back up that self-perception. In reality, we've never had an idea that was not put there by someone else. We end up parrots. Even college essays these days are for the most part hasty, last-minute exercises in proper paper formatting and clever source herding than any real original thought.
In a related essay, Thinking for Oneself, Schopenhauer wrote, "A man can apply himself of his own free will to reading and learning, while he cannot to thinking. Thinking must be kindled like a fire by a draught and sustained by some kind of interest in the subject” (3).
Or, put more concisely, reading is easy, but thinking is not.
Schopenhauer believed that reading without also critically engaging the material (active reading) is an exercise in intellectual passivity; it stamps the mind with another's ideas that are not your own. This can become an intellectually paralyzing habit, getting to the point where independent thought is not possible without the crutch of a book.
A mind like this resembles a slowly leaking balloon constantly needing a refill with someone else's ideas to stay filled. Schopenhauer is not telling us to stop reading entirely but to make it a launching pad for our own thinking. Instead, we should engage in active reading, or reading with the intent of fully understanding and evaluating the author's argument, rather than just skimming through the text to get to the end.
“Remember rather that the man who writes for fools always finds a large public: and only read for a limited and definite time exclusively the works of great minds, those who surpass other men of all times and countries, and whom the voice of fame points to as such. These alone really educate and instruct. One can never read too little of bad, or too much of good books: bad books are intellectual poison; they destroy the mind. In order to read what is good one must make it a condition never to read what is bad; for life is short, and both time and strength limited." (4)
Or, focus on the quality of your reading rather than the quantity. If you are what you eat, then your mind is what you take in. Garbage in, garbage out. After reading something profound, Schopenhauer says, we should immediately re-read it at least one more time to really understand the author's message. A small, tidy, library of philosophy, history, science, art, literature, all read thoroughly, understood, and incorporated into a sound system of thought, is far better than stacks of random books, each read quickly and soon forgotten.
I would add one recommendation to Schopenhauer's advice: write. Keep a private journal or a public blog. If too much reading is bad for you, then writing can be an antidote, something creative, generative, and even self-revealing. It has been for me. Writing is also often difficult, especially if you've conditioned your mind to avoid thinking your own thoughts. The challenge of writing well will help you appreciate quality writing from others. Put simply, writing will improve the quality of your reading, and vice versa.
So was Schopenhauer on to something? Yes, he most certainly was, but with a few important caveats.
For me, reading is a godsend, the ability to transcend time and space in order to escape, at least for a little while, from the tedium of the real world. Schopenhauer's wholly practical approach seems to miss the therapeutic role of just letting the imagination drift by reading a good book from a gifted storyteller. I'm a fan of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and can offer no deeper justification for reading those genres than the flights of fancy they offer. I'm better for it. Schopenhauer would probably not approve, but that's okay.
Indeed for many of you reading this, the whole point of reading is for pleasure and escape, not more time on the treadmill of self-improvement. I get that. But I still agree with Schopenhauer that we only have so much time and so should focus our efforts on the quality of our reading rather than the quantity. That's where I'm at, I suppose, mostly quality over quantity, but with a little mass-market junk food thrown into the mix every now and then.
After all, no meal is complete without dessert.
P.S. As I was writing this essay, I remembered the classic bar scene from Good Will Hunting. We've all known someone like Blond Ponytail Guy, so it was fun to watch Matt Damon's character channel his inner Schopenhauer and put this pompous fellow in his place for too much book learning and too little original thought. Schopenhauer would have approved. Here it is if you haven't seen it in awhile. Enjoy, and thank you for reading.
(1) Arthur Schopenhauer. “Essays of Schopenhauer.” iBooks. 161.
(2) Ibid., 256.
(3) Ibid., 254.
(4) Ibid., 170.