I was asked a fun question the other day: what is your top advice is for new college graduates? On CNBC, several of us answered the question, and my advice was simple: read as many books as possible. If you want to be interesting, interested, successful, and happy, then there is no substitute for reading.
Let’s explore a few reasons why reading books matters more than ever.
Solving Your Puzzle
Creativity is a surprisingly simple process. Each moment of creative insight is simply the recognition of a new pattern among old parts. Therefore, there are two stages that matter: 1) collecting old parts and 2) finding new relationships between them.
There is no better way to collect old parts than reading a variety of great books. If you collect the ideas found in books, you will have the pieces to create new and interesting combinations. The number of possible combinations rises the more ideas you collect. And the potential quality of those combinations rises the more different the ideas are from one another.
Creativity is a puzzle. The desired insight—your eureka moment—is the image. But there is no puzzle box to guide you, no predefined edges to help you isolate your creative image. The more puzzle pieces you collect, the better the odds you’ll recognize the image–your idea. Pieces come in lots of forms, and they are scattered everywhere. The sooner you start collecting, the better.
Regular “table” grapes—the kind you’d buy at the supermarket—are plump, thin skinned, and have a light amount of sugar content; their flavor fades quickly. They are grown hanging under vines, which limits exposure to the sun but maximizes the volume and quantity produced.
Wine grapes are much smaller, with thick skins and more flavor (sugar content). They are grown to maximize exposure to the sun, which makes them more concentrated in every sense. Each vine of wine grapes yields just one-third as much volume as each vine of table grapes.
Most of what there is to read—articles, news, blogs—are like table grapes. But books are like wine grapes.
Having written a book, I can attest that what ends up in a book is a small subset of what is originally written or considered by the author. I scrapped entire chapters, and jettisoned at least 20 sources which I first thought would be integral to the book. A good book is the distilled wisdom of the author, refined down to the most what is most useful and interesting (non-fiction) or beautiful and enthralling (fiction).
It takes roughly 75 gallons of water to create one gallon of wine, and it probably takes each author a few hundred other books to create one book of their own. It is fun to sit down with a glass of wine and a great book and think about how much has gone into the production of each.
Feeling Alive—Even Immortal
The third and final reason is pure enjoyment. The level of joy one experiences when reading compounds as you read more and more. For me, it feels like a runner’s high—that feeling of invincibility when everything else falls away. It is a kind of bliss.
The more books you read, the more associations you will find, and the more you will realize that people through history have had all the same struggles and all the same joys. Experiencing those ups and downs vicariously is invigorating.
You begin to feel a connection that approaches ecstasy when you read again and again about people through history all making the same journey. As you read more, you begin to identify with a sense of unity that binds us all together and that renders anxiety and fear inert.
Here is an example of the type of associations which spring up as you read more and more. It is a quick journey from 1944, to 5,000 B.C.E., and back to 2006.
This was written in 1944 in a brilliant novel called The Razor’s Edge:
“I wish I could make you see how much fuller the life I offer you is than anything you have a conception of. I wish I could make you see how exciting the life of the spirit is and how rich in experience. It’s illimitable. It’s such a happy life. There’s only one thing like it, when you’re up in a plane by yourself, high, high, and only infinity surrounds you. You’re intoxicated by the boundless space. You feel such a sense of exhilaration that you wouldn’t exchange it for all the power and glory in the world. I was reading Descartes the other day. The ease, the grace, the lucidity. Gosh!”
The title The Razor’s Edge derives from the Katha Upanishad, which was (by historians’ best guess) written 7,000 years ago. The Katha is a conversation between a young boy and the god of death. I remember reading the Katha for the first time and being completely blown away:
See how it was with those who came before,
How it will be with those who are living.
Like corn mortals ripen and fall; like corn
They come up again.
May we light the fire
That burns out the ego and enables us
To pass from fearful fragmentation
To fearless fullness in the changeless whole.
Above the senses is the mind, above
The mind is the intellect, above that
Is the ego, and above the ego Is the unmanifested
Cause. And beyond is Brahman, omnipresent,
Attributeless. Realizing him one is released
From the cycle of birth and death.
He is formless, and can never be seen
With these two eyes. But he reveals himself
In the heart made pure through meditation
And sense-restraint. Realizing him, one is
Released from the cycle of birth and death.
Fast forward once again 7,000 years. Given that we are all artists in our own way, this passage from Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, written in 2006, is a fitting way to end this ode to reading books.
Certainly for artists of all stripes, the unknown, the idea or the form or the tale that has not yet arrived, is what must be found. It is the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophesies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it’s where their work comes from, although its arrival signals the beginning of the long disciplined process of making it their own. Scientists too, as J. Robert Oppenheimer once remarked, “live always at the ‘edge of mystery’—the boundary of the unknown.” But they transform the unknown into the known, haul it in like fishermen; artists get you out into that dark sea… Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.
OK, I got a little carried away there, but you get the idea! Winston Churchill said, “The empires of the future are the empires of the mind.” The emperors of the future will be those who read voraciously and then use the ideas which they have collected to build new wonders, small and large. So for new graduates—hell, for anyone—the best advice I ever received was to read read read, and it’s the best advice I can offer.
P.S. if this wasn’t a good advertisement for joining a book club, I don’t know what would be! I run one which sends out 3-4 books each month—you can learn more and sign up here.
P.S.S. A helpful tip on idea collecting: Evernote and similar programs are a gift to would be creatives because they make it easy to collect and document your ideas and experiences. Every little thing can be material used in a new combination. I started doing this about 2 years ago, and so far I have 357 notes (one per book that I’ve read since starting this process). Each note has the best insights from the book—a distillation of a distillation. I return to these notes constantly. I highly recommend using a similar system to collect your ideas.