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What to Read and When

Homo nihil scit, nisi qui legit.

The answer is simpler than we think: Read anything. Read now.

I am not a reading snob. Reading is not social currency for me. I don’t read so that I can throw around titles at a cocktail party, as if they were brushes with greatness that defined my legitimacy. I just like reading: cans of soup labels, baseball stories in the Sunday papers, those long legal agreements that everyone clicks “I agree” to when are signing up for some new service—I read them all. Chilling stuff.

Lately I have been reading about hurricanes—weather, in general, but hurricanes specifically. They are fascinating, and they will soon become relevant to me in a personal way. As a Stoic, I know that hurricanes are what author Wayne Farnsworth called “externals”: things that I can do nothing about, things that I should not spend time worrying about. But by reading about hurricanes, I am not worrying myself; in fact, I am doing the opposite: I am demystifying them. I am learning about them in a scientific way, and by doing that I am casting their fictive hold on my imagination into the dustbin. The more I read about hurricanes—or sailing, or diesel engines, or bears—the less fear-space (which is fueled by ignorance) they occupy within me.

Of course, that reading is curated. Auto-didactism can be useful, but it can be dangerous if you are not trained in the art of self-examination. That art involves not listening to that voice in your head, but rather questioning it: Why did I have this thought? Why do I have this feeling? How do I know what I know? Who says so?

In his Daily Stoic email, author and Stoic Ryan Holiday discussed this concept. He cited a recent interview with How To Decide author Annie Duke, who called that reflex—the reflex of questioning yourself, your own beliefs, your own ideas—“getting outside.” Holiday said,

Marcus Aurelius referred to taking “Plato’s View.” He wanted to get up and look from the 10,000 foot view. He wanted to see life, see what was bothering him, see what other people are doing with perspective. He wanted to get to the outside. Why? So he wasn’t so biased. So he wasn’t so frustrated. So he didn’t make it into something more than it needed to be. So he was blinded by it. So he could make better decisions.*

Reading is the way in to the 10,000-foot view. So I read about hurricanes (When the Sky Breaks, by Simon Winchester, Divine Wind: The History and Science of Hurricanes, by Kerry Emanuel), and more: I recently re-read the openings of The Great Gatsby and For Whom the Bell Tolls, simply because I wanted to reacquaint myself with the opening 20% of great novels. I didn’t need to read the entire books again—and reading one book at a time is another myth about reading: read what you need. But don’t forget to take step back. Get some instruction. Get some curation. Get up to 10,000 feet.

So read widely. Read now. Read everything. Because this is true: One who reads nothing, knows nothing.

*To listen to The Daily Stoic podcast on the importance of reading, follow this link:

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