Why we read books

I’ve not been writing reviews recently for a number of reasons, but I keep reading. We’re in Week 20 of the year and I’ve read 19 books. I hope to finish my 20th this week to keep on schedule. But we don’t read books to review them, or to meet a quota, but to learn, to grow, and to deepen our knowledge.

Peggy Noonan (whose book on John Paul II I’m currently reading) spoke at Catholic University’s commencement last week. She puts it this way:

Reading books forces you to imagine, question, ponder, reflect, connect one historical moment with another. Reading books provides a deeper understanding of political figures and events, of the world — of life itself.

Watching a movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis shows you a drama. Reading histories of it presents you with a dilemma.  The book forces you to imagine the color, sound, tone and tension, the logic of events:  It makes your brain do work.

But, oddly, it’s work the brain wants to do.

A movie or documentary is received passively: You sit back, see and hear.  Books demand more and reward more. When you read them your knowledge base deepens and expands.  In time that deepening comes to inform your own work, sometimes in ways of which you’re not fully conscious.

Not to put too fine a point, but your brain gets bigger, stronger. You become smarter and deeper.  That happens with books.

The video of her address is here.

“It’s work the brain wants to do.” Put down your iPhone, your iPad, and your remote control and grab a book. You’ll be better off for it.

Tools of Titans (Tim Ferriss)

On my holiday reading list is Tim Ferriss‘s new Tools of Titans. I’m waiting to receive my copy (Christmas can’t come soon enough), but I wanted to encourage others to read the book even though I haven’t. I’ve listened to the first chapter that Tim has read on his podcast. This is going to be worth every penny. (His other books are great, too. See here, here, and here.)

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A lesson in mercy

I’d never read The Merchant of Venice until tonight. And I do not have significant exposure to Shakespeare generally. In this Year of Mercy, I found the discussion of mercy and justice very profound. In Act IV, Scene 1, Portia, acting as the judge, is discussing with Shylock his insistence that Antonio pay a pound of flesh to repay his debt. She says (emphasis mine),

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

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