Researchers keep learning more about the benefits of book reading, which are so numerous it would be mundane to list them here.
The problem is that many people struggle to read books. They are too easily distracted (a problem greater today than ever) or quickly grow tired. This problem is more acute if the reading is difficult and requires a bit more labor.
Our instinct in these situations is to plow through our fatigue or distraction and continue reading.
The French thinker Montaigne had a different strategy. He too, it turns out, was prone to distraction and fatigue when he’d read.
“My sight becomes confused and dispersed,” he wrote in his great work Essays. “I have to withdraw it and apply it again by starts…”
But Montaigne didn’t simply push ahead. He had a different tactic.
If I encounter difficulties in reading, I do not gnaw my nails over them; I leave them there, after making one or two attacks on them. If I planted myself in them, I would lose both myself and my time; for I have an impulsive mind. What I do not see by the first attack, I see less by persisting. … If this book wearies me, I take up another.”
This is good advice. As a young man, I often forced myself to finish a book simply because I had started it. The problem with this is that I often completed books that were no longer stimulating my mind. I was reading words on a page, but those words were no longer serving as intellectual nourishment for my mind.
It’s my hunch that more people would enjoy book reading and the many benefits that accompany it if they took up the same approach as Montaigne, a writer who inspired Shakespeare, among others. (In fact, several lines in Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest” were lifted directly from Montaigne’s essay “Of the Cannibals.”)
Reading need not be easy. But if one finds a book neither engaging nor stimulating, one might be better served by simply picking up something else for a while.
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