Forever Reading, Never To Be Read

In Essays and Aphorisms, Arthur Schopenhauer makes an interesting remark about the pitfalls of reading too much. He refers to Alexander Pope’s poem.

Forever reading, never to be read.

Alexander Pope

When you read the thoughts of others, you are allowing their flow of thoughts to steer you in one direction or another, even if you do not feel like going there.

reading forcibly imposes on the mind thoughts that are
as foreign to its mood and direction at the moment of reading as the signet is to the wax upon which it impresses its seal.

When the mind is thinking for itself, it is paying attention to its immediate surroundings and its needs.

As Lao Tzu remarked, the value of things is in the space between, and not only in the things themselves.

To compulsively distract ourselves with the thoughts of others robs us of the ability to use our own mind. It makes our minds less elastic.

Too much reading can make men dumber than they are by nature.

In a different way, Herbert Simon hinted at the same problem when he said,

“In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

Schopenhauer goes on, trying to convince us that reading is a mere surrogate for thinking. It means letting someone directly into your thoughts. And many books show you how many ways there are of being wrong, and how you would be lead astray if you followed their guidance.

There is some irony in Schopenhauer’s words. He compels his reader to abandon the writings of others, and to listen only to him. Like the crazed cult leader who admonishes his followers to reject all other forms of authority — of course, all others but his own.

But there is some truth to what Schopenhauer is saying, but only with regards certain kinds of books. Some books are informational, historical, scientific, or even mathematical — not all books contain the ramblings of philosophers. So, in our age, it may be necessary to understand how things work, in order to function well in the world, and that does not include reading the thoughts of others. We cannot conjure up facts in a vacuum, no matter how hard we try.

As for reading other philosophers, it would be silly not to. Especially if they were great philosophers. For one thing, a great philosopher is capable of thinking through problems that you neither have the time nor ability to think though, and this will, far from making your mind inflexible, open your mind up to new ideas.

The danger is when you become a passive consumer of the ideas of others. For example, you merely read Nietzsche or Kant, and forget to write about what you have learned, or even to express your own thoughts.

The only reasonable path forward would be to maintain a balance, between scanning the minds of others for what you might be missing, and by using your own mind for original insights that cannot be accessed from elsewhere.

The problem that Herbert Simon discussed is more related to the involuntary control of our attention. Whenever we cannot help but consume information, and do nothing else, then we fall into the trap of becoming a dull erudite, who knows a lot about the world, but understands very little of it.

You should read only when your own thoughts dry up, which will of course happen frequently enough even to the best heads; but to banish your own thoughts so as to take up a book is a sin against the Holy Ghost; it is like deserting untrammelled nature to look at a herbarium or engravings of landscapes

Schopenhauer

Originally published at http://unearnedwisdom.com.

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