“The real act of discovery,” Marcel Proust wrote, “consists not in finding new lands but in seeing with new eyes.” Today, it seems that the most successful people don’t just compete better, they go places the competition hasn’t even thought to go. The best leaders see what others don’t.
The visionary author C.S. Lewis recognized this same importance, citing the act of reading as his preferred method of seeing through new eyes. In his 1961 book, An Experiment in Criticism, he wrote,
“The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others.”
The great Narnia author isn’t alone in this assertion. Perhaps one of the greatest scientific minds ever, Galileo, likens reading as the closest thing we have to superpowers. And half a millennium later, Carl Sagan described how these “funny dark squiggles” can “break the shackles of time” and transport us into the mind of another.
So last April, I decided to try reading one book a week, setting aside an hour a day to reach into the minds of another. And begin seeing the world through different sets of eyes.
As the historian Will Durant wrote in his essay on the hundred best books for an education,
“Let me have seven hours a week, and I will make a scholar and a philosopher out of you; in four years you shall be as well educated as any new-fledged Doctor of Philosophy in the land.”
One year later, here are a couple things I’ve learned.
Don’t Listen to Advice
My first advice is to ignore anyone who tries to give you advice on reading. So this won’t actually be advice. Merely a handful of suggestions and thoughts that you can consider at your leisure.
For it always seems as though it’s through our own instincts that we reach our greatest conclusions. And while there may be many books and authors that I don’t like, that doesn’t make them bad. It just means they’re not my taste. And we all have different tastes.
In a lecture delivered for The Reading Agency, an English charity devoted to giving kids an equal chance at a better life by fostering an early love of reading, Neil Gaiman cautioned adults against pushing their own reading preferences into children,
“Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the twenty-first-century equivalents of Victorian “improving” literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and, worse, unpleasant.”
So follow your instincts. Read what speaks to you. And don’t let anyone convince you that you should read something that’s more in line with their own taste.
Read What Disturbs Your Universe
“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” – Franz Kafka, Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors
Having previously written on how the best advice doesn’t provide answers but provokes questions, I’ve found the most impactful books follow this same strategy.
Perhaps not the ones I enjoyed most at the time, but the ones that stayed with me the longest, all have that in common. They didn’t offer the clearest answers. They inspired the best questions.
“The stories I cared about, the stories I read and reread, were usually stories which dared to disturb the universe, which asked questions rather than gave answers.”
The world would be a better place if we were all more comfortable asking difficult questions. Whenever I’ve found myself resisting a question, it’s because I’m content to leave the relative comfort of my current view unchallenged. A path to zealotry if there ever was one.
If we see the world with new eyes, we need to be willing to confront these difficult questions. Reading gives us this challenge, if we only let it. Because as L’Engle put it, “Every new question is going to disturb someone’s universe.”
Diverse Reading Brings Diverse Perspectives
It’s easy to fall into the trap of ignoring fiction writing. We become so focused on self-improvement that reading a work of fiction seems a poor use of our limited time.
But in our quest to see the world differently, fiction plays as important of a role as any instructional guide. As Neil Gaiman eloquently put it,
“Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. And discontent is a good thing: people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different, if they’re discontented.”
Whether it’s reading Aldous Huxley’s dystopian future in Brave New World and re-evaluating how we measure our own happiness or revisiting the life lessons that The Phantom Tollbooth offered us when we were kids. Or just seeing the engaging storytelling of Patrick Rothfuss and Ken Follett, each work offers new perspectives and different ideas.
Whenever I read what interests me, instead of what suits my planned development schedule, I’m often treated with new insights and ideas beyond my previous plans. As Herman Hesse wrote,
“If one follows one’s nature and not one’s education one becomes a child again and begins to play with things; the bread becomes a mountain to bore tunnels into, and the bed a cave, a garden, a snow field.”
Who among us doesn’t smile at the thought of returning to that mindset? Who wouldn’t want to see endless possibilities of even the most ordinary of daily objects?
Read Actively, Not Passively
“Read actively, not passively: consider at every step whether what you read accords with your own experience, and how far it may be applied to the guidance of your own life.” – Will Durant, The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time
There’s a constant debate on the best method for taking notes while reading. Whether it’s better to underline important passages and rewrite them or save time by highlighting with a Kindle. Whether the process of rewriting lines better implants them in our minds or if it doesn’t justify the additional time.
I don’t know if there’s one best solution. Ryan Holiday’s Notecard System obviously works for him. Others, including me, swear by Evernote. Having tried any number of methods this past year, I really believe the only thing that matters is whether we’re reading actively, not passively.
It doesn’t matter how we capture the lessons we take from each book. Only that we’re actively looking for them. If we’re reading with an eye for passages that will help develop our character, we’ll find them.
And if one method of retaining and archiving them proves insufficient, we’ll adapt and find another that better suits our needs. The important part is to just try something. And to recognize that it’s in the art of actively looking that we eventually find what we’re looking for. In the words of legendary designer Milton Glaser,
“If you perceive the universe as being a universe of abundance, then it will be. If you think of the universe as one of scarcity, then it will be.”
Take Advantage of the Social Benefit
Rebecca Solnit described a book as a “heart that only beats in the chest of another,” and nowhere does this become more evident than when we explore the social benefit of reading.
Reading opens us up to new viewpoints and develops empathy for different perspectives. This benefit is magnified when we discuss our own takeaways and invite others to share theirs.
As my own interpretation of Animal Farm and my sympathies with The Count of Monte Cristo and The Idiot change each time I read them, I also benefit from the different impressions and takeaways that our community of readers has to offer.
In a response to a nine-year old girl who asked her the benefit of books, Maria Popova offered the following perspective,
“Books build bridges to the lives of others, both the characters in them and your countless fellow readers across other lands and other eras, and in doing so elevate you and anchor you more solidly into your own life.”
And nowhere is this more evident than in the lives of those we hold most dear. Many parents will read to their children while they’re young, but stop once kids are able to read for themselves. Yet the benefits of taking the time to read together don’t have a diminishing return.
Some of my favorite memories of this past year include setting aside time each night to join my daughter as we make our way through the Harry Potter series. A time when I can forget about my phone, ignore the distractions of the world, and be fully present in sharing this time with my daughter.
And in response to everyone who claims to be too busy, I’d ask, what could possibly be more important?
Play the Long Game
“Those who don’t read good books have no advantage over those who can’t.” – Mark Twain
As we struggle with society’s productivity obsession, in that each moment must be considered an investment with clear payoffs, it’s difficult to rationalize the time investment to immerse ourselves in books.
Reading doesn’t come with any guaranteed payouts. We can’t go in thinking that the hours invested will show a clear return. From a purely economic perspective, we’re stealing time from our business.
Yet when we look at the long game, we’ll see benefit. With an improved way of seeing the world and broader perspectives that yield new outlooks and better decisions.
Similar to the benefits Yuval Noah Harari ascribes to studying history in Sapiens, we read “not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.”
So follow your interests. Read diversely. Read actively. And read what prompts new questions in you.
Because as Proust so wisely showed us, our real discoveries will come from seeing with new eyes. And we all have many more possibilities before us than we can imagine.