One of the central tenants of my life is that I want to get as much rigorous mental activity as I can. I came to this organically the summer before I got my first teaching job. I had just finished graduate school and was living off what remained of my student loans. I had a lot of time on my hands and I started reading like I hadn’t read since I was an undergraduate (I am fond of quoting the following numbers: during my last semester at Washington University, I averaged about 1000 pages of reading and 10 pages of writing per week). In the evenings, I was working on the first draft of what would eventually become Lonely Human Atoms.
As the summer passed, I started to notice something. Nights I spent watching TV or sloughing around on the computer, I felt lethargic. When I spent my time reading and writing, I had energy. I was much happier. Slowly, TV subsided from my life. Aside from baseball, Mad Men, and Downton Abbey, I don’t watch TV at all. Instead, I read and I write.
This post is mostly about what I read. As you know, if you are a regular reader of this blog, I don’t read crap. I read mostly literary fiction, some fairly weighty nonfiction, and a smattering of poetry, plays, memoir, etc. In fact, I disdain that which does not aspire to be literary in some sense because I don’t believe there is much use in things that do not challenge us.
More and more I am being proven right. For sometime, there have been studies showing that reading fiction teaches a person empathy, but they include all fiction. Twilight gets lumped in with Great Expectations. That never felt right to me.
Recently, there has been new research showing that reading about something is not – as far as your brain is concerned – appreciably different from experiencing it. This is where the literary triumphs. Literary writing is that which is most vivid, which most pulls at our intellect and our emotions. It is that which provides us with the most memorable experience.
And more people need to get on board.
There are people – my mom, sadly is one of them – who do not like to think. Or who insist that they think plenty during the day. (“I don’t want to think after work,” was always my mom’s answer when dad and I tried to get her to not watch mindless TV in the evenings.) I think there is something wrong with this.
I can, perhaps speak with more authority now that I am a teacher. Not because I have special knowledge of learning, but because I have a job that taxes me mentally all day. There is no down time (or very little) and when I get home, I still push myself. I still read good books. I still try to write good posts and beautiful fiction. I do not let myself checkout. I keep my brain on.
I force this rigor on myself because I know that I am better for it. I am happier. I am more thoughtful. I am, frankly, smarter when I spend my free time challenging myself instead of checking out.
But there is another level. You might even call it a moral level. Einstein said, “Those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act.” Learning is a form of action. Reading – and gaining experience through reading – is a form of action. One of the primary problems in American society is the uneducated electorate. Certainly, many people have never been given the chance at a decent education, but many more have simply chosen to check out when they get home from work. Why? Because it is easy. Because it takes effort to get going on a book when you spent all day doing whatever it is you happen to do all day.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t take mental time off. Everyone needs that. I’m saying it is a mistake to have your extracurricular life be about nothing other than leisure. Leisure is great, but it doesn’t fulfill you. I’ve known several people who spent their lives doing not-very-much engaging outside of work and then retired to find themselves with nothing to do and no outlet for mental stimulation.
An article in The Atlantic recently has caused a bit of a stir. The writer asserts that everyone needs to start reading literary fiction at least 30 minutes a day because it will make you a better person. She’s right. It will. Read books. As often as you can. Mostly classics.