On my kindle app sit the books I have read over the past couple of years. It contains, among many other things, myself. These books form a large part of who I am today.
Similarly, the unique information diet you consume forms a significant part of who you are. Unfortunately, many adults have lost touch with good character by consuming shallow low-value information like most Tik Tok clips, Twitter posts, and current news.
I argue much of this lack of character stems from most adults' refusal to read quality books. In my opinion, good books open the door to virtue, the habit of good action in specific circumstances. I believe many of the good habits I have built, and bad habits I have broken are partially from my self-reading habit over the last two years.
Yet most adults struggle to consistently read quality information. When I ask why, I hear many excuses: people don’t have the time to read, books are boring, or there are other more important things to do. But I believe the largest reason is people don’t fully grasp how much of a benefit a quality self-reading habit (reading done outside of obligation) is on fostering good character.
In his book, The Art of Reading, Damon Young explores how reading builds Aristotle's six virtues.
With each virtue, I will explain why I believe it's lacking in society. Then I will explain how self-reading exemplifies each virtue. Hopefully, this will persuade more adults to build a self-reading habit.
Most children have a boundless curiosity; they want to learn and see everything. I read voraciously as a kid, staying up for hours each night. But in middle and high school, I and many other children lost our curiosity.
Instead of reading for pure joy, I read to complete the English paper due next Friday. I was forced to read "classics" and poetry against my will. This distaste for reading didn’t last into adulthood, but many aren’t so lucky. Other adults mistake their apathy toward forced reading as a lack of curiosity for reading in general.
But self-reading reconnects you with your childhood curiosity.
Every piece of English writing is a mix of 26 letters of the alphabet. Imagine how many possible books could be written with these combinations. This sentence could be made by accidentally shuffling words together.
By implementing a self-reading habit you can build your own infinite library; a unique culmination of the books you read mixed with your perspective formed from genetics, relationships, place of residence, education, and experiences.
The best part is you can build your own curriculum. You don’t have to adhere to the standard texts. If you don’t like a book, drop it. Like a childhood exploring a candy store, jump from book to book, genre to genre, as your interests naturally change. You will be astounded by the insights you find.
"The tragedy of the modern person is their inability to sit in a room for 30 minutes by themselves and think." - Damon Young.
The industrial revolution was a turning point in human society. It marked when machines joined man, and productivity skyrocketed. It also reinforced one of humanity's old inventions: time.
Life became a game of increasing productivity through optimizing time. Factory quality was measured in output per hour. Workers showed up from nine to five. Bars opened five minutes after work ended for relaxation. Everything was measured to the clock.
Our relationship with time has only gotten worse in the information age. The internet gives us access to almost any piece of information with the click of our fingers. Travelling has never been easier.
Not long ago I was on a transatlantic flight waiting for takeoff when someone in front of me shouted for the crew to "hurry up!" One hundred years ago we would have had to spend months sailing to make it across the ocean. Yet now we have people complaining about the time for a flight. There isn't only "no time" for reading but "no time" for patience.
A self-reading habit builds back the virtue of patience; reading makes us endure the human feeling of time running out.
For example, Young explains reading an author like Henry James, from first to last lines, is "less an exercise in sociability and more a confrontation with oneself." His books are long and painfully slow. He often writes entire pages for what most authors would say in three sentences. Readers of Henry James accept this fact and build the patience necessary to enjoy his writing.
This effect isn’t unique to Henry James. Self-reading makes you realize you shouldn't fill every day with productive output.
There is more uploaded to the internet in a week than you could consume in an entire lifetime. And there are more than 33 million titles on Amazon. You shouldn't even attempt to read all of these books. You can't. Instead, you should build the patience to stick to a few great authors and read them thoroughly.
"It's precisely boring oneself without relief … that takes courage" - Henry James.
Humans hate incompleteness. Many people would rather come to a solid conclusion with inadequate evidence than no conclusion at all.
We have evolved for story. Before the internet and even writing, everything was passed through generations orally. Because stories naturally have a beginning and end, we are prone to seek completion.
In the modern-day, we see this craving for completion in many people's lack of courage to adventuring into new art mediums. People stick to the same types of shows, the same newspaper, and the same artists online. They fear the unsatisfying incompleteness they might find trying something new.
But exploratory self-reading—venturing out into new genres, authors, and disciplines from what you usually do—builds courage for the unknown. It puts you at risk for incompleteness.
Henry James's novel, The Figure in The Carpet, is an excellent example of this idea. The main character Vereker is humiliated when he reviews a respected novelist's novel and can't figure out what it means. He re-reads it for months and months but can't find meaning. After falling into deep despair, the novel simply ends. This leaves the reader with a terrifying sense of incompleteness. Ironically, the reader and the main character himself are left with waves of wonder but no consolation for their misery.
This danger is present in any foreign book you read. There is always a chance the satisfying conclusion you hope for isn't there.
Reading shows courage in another sense. Books are psychologically dangerous. Reading the right one at the right time could fundamentally alter your character. Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky changed the way I see mental health by giving me a view into the thoughts of someone with bipolar disorder.
These types of character shifts rarely happen when we expect them to. We have to prime ourselves for them by adventuring into new books.
"Do not get a mere craving for print without thought,' Whitehead told schoolboys in 1919. 'It is almost as bad as drink." - Damon Young
Pride is a virtue because it keeps us from becoming an everchanging mess of opinions, values, and beliefs. If we had no pride in our character, we would fundamentally change ourselves the moment we learned something new, whether better or for worse.
However, pride is bad when it turns into vanity. Vanity is pride gone chronic and growing into delusion. Unfortunately, for many adults in modern society, their vanity grows into a refusal to read.
These adults see reading as beneath them. They believe reading is for only students, that it’s for people looking to learn for work after graduation. They arrogantly assume learning is something that stops after traditional schooling.
Sometimes this vanity turns into hate reading: putting a piece of writing as worse than it is because it's from someone or something you dislike. I know many people unwilling to read fiction or fantasy because they don't "read that sorta stuff."
This is vanity at its worst. It's a reluctance to learn and explore out of excessive pride in one's current life situation.
A self-reading habit can be a builder of virtuous pride. Readers must build a certain pride in their beliefs to read safely. Otherwise, books would be too psychologically dangerous. They would change readers’ opinions with the snap of a finger.
Reading well requires reading every word from an author as a gold minder inspects gold, measuring each point against the values, beliefs, and mental models you have built from the past. Readers must be willing to change their minds but never without careful reflection. Even if this change is something they have been doing their whole life.
In America (and many other places), we live in a modern-day consumerist culture. It seems like every street and online article hosts an endless supply of ads and products that will somehow "change our lives" and make us as happy as possible. It's mind-boggling the amount of information shot at us at any given time.
In effect, most people become the information equivalent of binge eaters having no degree of temperance whatsoever. They fall for literary indulgence, stuffing themselves full of informational garbage like most of Tik Tok, Instagram, current news, etc.
This often leads to literary anorexia in other reading mediums. People stuff themselves so full of trash, they have no mental capacity for great books, thought leaders, fantastic articles, etc.
This intemperance has another terrible side effect.
Like overeating food leads to indigestion, literary indulgence makes it hard to digest anything you read. Adults spend so much time indulging themselves in the modern pleasantries of life they have no time for thinking, conversing, or writing about their reading.
A quality self-reading habit can build the temperance necessary to live happily in modern society.
As has become abundantly clear from the other virtues we have discussed, reading is hard. It requires a degree of curiosity, courage, patience, and pride. It can be terribly understimulating compared to many other activities in society; it's literally black text on a white screen. The difficult nature of the habit is exactly how it build temperance.
Choosing to read instead of falling for other attention grabbing activities teaches you to appreciate the small things. To work with a cliche, reading teaches you "less is more." I love walking with a loved one, eating a good meal, and enjoying a cup of tea by the fireplace; activities usually too understimulating to enjoy for many intemperate adults today.
We live in a most unjust period. This is because modern society has fewer people with "skin in the game" than ever before. People in banking, law and many other professions rarely have to face the ramifications of their decisions. For example, the engineer isn't required to live under the bridge they build. The president of the United States doesn't have to fight after a declaration of war.
In the writing world, this injustice is seen reflected in criticism. Most of the books people buy are from the top 1% of writers. As a result, many pieces of fantastic writing will never get found.
Often the writers who make it to the top are the ones who "play it safe." For instance, scientific books usually, only get published if the information isn’t novel compared to what has already been published by more than 10%.
Those who write something contrarian are often neglected or ridiculed. The worst sin is to publicly condemn someone with flimsy proof, followed by dogmatic sureness of their guilt. But often it’s the ideas that make people the angriest that should be fought for the hardest.
Quality self-reading requires fosters the virtue of justice; Reading requires the reader to become the writer's comrade or collaborator. Before the task of criticism begins, they must create a universal language.
Mortimer J. Adler in his book, How to Read a Book, explains you have to come to terms with an author. This means understanding the specific definition of a word they use and aligning it with yours.
To criticize fairly, a reader must put themselves in the shoes of the author, read into their background, understand the genre, and many other things. They must refrain from falling for confirmation bias, projection, extrapolation, and the literally hundreds of other psychological biases that can lead to human misjudgment.
As mentioned during the section on pride, we can't hate someone simply because we haven't liked them in the past or love them because we have enjoyed their other books.
I love the Stormlight Archives by Brandon Sanderson, but I admit his momentum is off in many of his novels. The beginning and middle are chocked full of exposition and build-up which is still excellent. The conclusions are always the most invigorating, but at the sacrifice of earlier sections.
In the modern information age, many adults lack character.
Reading could seem like a strange way to build Aristotle's six virtues: curiosity, patience, courage, pride, temperance, and justice. It comes off as an isolated habit.
But despite its apparent isolated nature, a quality self-reading habit is one of the most prosocial habits you can build. The character you build through your reading will show in the other parts of life. Character comes wherever you go.
Check out my article on the Four Pillars of an Effective Reading Habit to learn more about bringing your reading habit to others. It goes into depth on how you can take your isolated reading habit and expand it into thinking, conversing, and writing habit.
Thanks to Astrid Helfant for the conversations which helped form this post.