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The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life: How to Get More Books in Your Life and More Life From Your Books Excerpt from The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life: How to Get More Books in Your Life and More Life From Your Books

by Steve Leveen

Book Love Regained

Do you wish you had more time to read? This little guide can help you make that wish come true.

It is a book for readers who want more in their lives. It will show you how to do a better job finding books you'll love, how to read more of them, how to retain more from them -- and as a result, how to live a larger life.

A different kind of reading tool
When my wife, Lori, and I founded Levenger and started selling "tools for serious readers," our customers graciously purchased our reading lights, bookcases, and notebooks. Yet there was one repeated request we could not fulfill. Again and again customers said to us, "What I really need is more time to read. I just wish you could give me that."

As a merchant, I found it frustrating to hear customers express such a deep desire and not be able to satisfy it.

But then I met a fellow who made it his hobby to ask people about their favorite books in order to build his own ideal reading list. I learned about people who fill their libraries with hundreds of carefully chosen books they would really like to read. I discovered readers who read lots of books by listening to them. I encountered people who praised their reading groups for how much more they gained from books shared this way.

Other readers described how they retained more from their books if they wrote in the margins or made summaries in notebooks. Still others became born-again readers due to some signal event (often a personal setback) and expressed how grateful they were for their rebirth.

I began to wonder if I should collect these techniques and stories to share with our customers. If I couldn't literally give them more time, perhaps I could give them tools for getting more books into the time they had.

A second, even more personal reason drove me to attempt this task: my own strong feeling that it was finally time -- in my middle years -- to repair my own ill-read life.

Late to the bookshelf
Growing up, I was not one of those precocious children who began reading serious books at a young age. What's more, I never became much of a reader in school. A couple of books in high school caught my interest, and a few more in college and graduate school, but I'm embarrassed to admit that most of the books my well-meaning instructors assigned went forlornly unread. The list of books I was supposed to read is impressive: The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Oxford New Testament, numerous Shakespearean plays and sonnets, The Decameron, Don Quixote, Moby-Dick, A Separate Peace, and so on and on. Virtually any list of important classics would have precious few check marks from me. Somehow, with Cliffs Notes and cunning, I faked my way through.

Not that I didn't taste the sweetness of book enlightenment. In college, I actually did read Voltaire's short and approachable Candide, and it had a marked impact on me. (I then saw the Leonard Bernstein musical three times.) In grad school, Leo Marx's Machine in the Garden opened my eyes to the reservations I felt about technology. I learned that rather than being new to our age, my concerns were as old as the Roman hills. And after reading R. Murray Schafer's The Tuning of the World, my ears were opened, never to hear the world the same way again.

Later, in my thirties, Stanley Marcus's Minding the Store came into my hands at the right time and showed me my calling as a merchant. These books were potent elixirs and gave me a thirst for more.

Yet I suppressed that thirst. Like so many young people beginning their careers, I had my nose to one grindstone after another, missing -- as my young adulthood loped by -- great books in all their varieties. I nodded to them in passing, like a busy neighbor. I knew some of their names, but I was living in their shadow rather than taking them into my life and running on their fuel.

So it was also midlife pangs of missed opportunity that drove me to this task. What useful advice I hoped to offer others, I thirsted for myself. I wanted, intensely, to get more life into the rest of my life.

While I spent two years writing this book, on reflection I realize that I have actually been working on it for about twelve years. That was when I began listening to unabridged audiobooks, an experience that changed my life. I was reborn to a life of reading, and therein began a process whose momentum is still building. In the past twelve months, I've read more books (with my ears and eyes) than in any other year of my life. As a result, my life has become electrified and zestful -- like living in color rather than black and white.

Making up for lost time
Seeing how my life was becoming so much fuller fired my ambition to find other ways people got back into reading as adults. I began to interview people from different professions whom I knew to be serious readers, including attorneys, scientists, librarians, physicians, scholars, writers, book reviewers, editors, and businesspeople. Usually I traveled to their offices with my laptop and tape recorder and interrogated them with all manner of questions about how they selected their books, how they read, when they read, whether speed reading courses had ever helped, how they sought to retain what they had read, and so forth. Frequently I tested the patience of busy people, yet by and large they were enthusiastic, if somewhat bemused, as they tried to answer questions they had never before considered.

In addition to these interviews, I found a heritage of works devoted to the phenomenon of reading -- books such as James Baldwin's Book-Lover (1885), Holbrook Jackson's The Reading of Books (1947), and Harold Bloom's How to Read and Why (2000). These and others offered wide-ranging insights into what reading is all about and how it can transform lives.

Finally, I sought out biographies. How did some great achievers, such as John Adams and Nelson Mandela, manage to become impassioned readers and lead such remarkably active lives?

Gradually I began to see that there were practical techniques people have found to get more books into their lives. Men and women did manage to enrich themselves with the written wisdom and wit of humankind, despite the pressing demands and urgent trivialities that plague the human race. What I found often surprised me.

Dispelling a few myths
I was surprised that many of the classic books we've heard about are not difficult and ponderous but instead, readable and fascinating. Though you sometimes encounter lengthy introductions better read afterward, you can easily jump over these moats and walk in the castle door, often to find a friendly dwelling you will thereafter consider your own.

On the other hand, there are also classics and important works that aren't a bit useful or good -- some not good for me and others not good for you. No classic exists that everyone loves and admires. Moreover, it is liberating to accept this and care not a whit when some treasured classic isn't treasure for you.

I was pleasantly surprised that many widely read people are not bookish stereotypes but vigorous actors on the stage of life. While there are some retiring booklovers who don't engage the real world, there are plenty who engage books and life with equal passion. Read about Theodore Roosevelt, Douglas MacArthur, Winston Churchill, T. E. Lawrence, and that 1930s African bush pilot and writer named Beryl Markham to see how living a life of the mind and a life of action can reinforce each other. Reading books that excite and teach you can lead to experiences you would not have had. These experiences, in turn, lead to more books you would not have uncovered. Many of the most engaged and interesting people in history seem to have been swept up into a whirling dance, laughing with life, one arm crooked into experience and the other into books.

Finally, I was surprised by what actually constituted a well-read life.

What does well-read really mean?
As Will Rogers observed, we all don't know something. No one can be well-read in all or even most things.

Not once in my interviews did I come across readers who described themselves as well-read. It seems to be a term we use to describe others, but not ourselves. This may be partly out of modesty, but it is mainly due, I think, to true insight. The more books you read, the more titles and topics you uncover. The more you know, the better you understand how little you really do know.

A large bookstore today can offer 100,000 titles. Major libraries preserve millions of volumes. And online, you can find over six million volumes in English. Compare these numbers with an active reading life of, say, fifty books a year or five hundred books a decade. It's natural to feel discouraged when we finally face the facts: there's a yawning expanse of delicious knowledge and captivating stories we are fated never to know.

No less a reader than Winston Churchill lamented this. "Think of all the wonderful tales that have been told, and well told, which you will never know. Think of all the searching inquiries into matters of great consequence which you will never pursue."

But don't let the numbers overwhelm you. Instead, think of how you respond to this simple question: "So . . . are you reading anything good these days?"

Being in book love
If you can answer along the lines of, "Oh yes! I'm reading this wonderful book now and I can't wait to get back to it; it's called so-and-so and it's about such-and-such," then you are in book love.

Any of us might live a long life or pass away tomorrow. I have come to believe that living your well-read life is measured not by the number of books read at the end of your life but by whether you are in book love today, tomorrow, and next week.

Book love is something like romantic love. When we are reading a really great book, burdens feel lighter, cares seem smaller, and commonplaces are suddenly delightful. You become your best optimistic self. Like romantic love, book love fills you with a certain warmth and completeness. The world holds promise. The atmosphere is clearer and brighter; a beckoning wind blows your hair.

But while romantic love can be fleeting, book love can last. Readers in book love become more skilled at choosing books that thrill them, move them, transport them. Success breeds success, as these lucky people learn how to find diamonds over and over. They are always reading a good book. They are curious, interested -- and usually interesting -- people. That keen observer of reading, Holbrook Jackson, wrote in 1931, "Book-love . . . never flags or fails, but, like Beauty itself, is a joy for ever."

It's not only fiction that can produce book love. The right advice-filled book at the right time in your life can speak to you so vividly, it's as if the author were writing just to you. And great history, when it makes the past "as interesting as it actually was," as the historian David McCullough says, can grab a reader's imagination as powerfully as a novel. A book on virtually any subject, when written well and falling into the right hands, can produce a transcendent emotional response. And one such experience can lead to another and another, in a delightfully unpredictable way that is different for each person.

It is said that no love is sincerer than the love of food. Perhaps no love is vaster in its particulars than the love of books.

As adults, we can use the power of book love not only to entertain us, but also to inspire us to do new things, and to make significant changes in our lives. We can even use our love of books to help others, and maybe save a bit of the world.

That's what reading is all about -- the pure pleasure of it, how it changes you, how you live your life differently because of what you read.

Your well-read life is yours alone
Your life is yours to discover and create, and few things are as important as for you to find those books that seem to have been written for you. Some, by good luck, will find you, but most -- and certainly most of the truly great ones -- you must seek out.

Do not set out to live a well-read life but rather your well-read life. No one can be well-read using someone else's reading list. Unless a book is good for you, you won't connect with it and gain from it. Just as no one can tell you how to lead your life, no one can tell you what to read for your life.

Living your well-read life is a way of living higher, with your eyes open to an astonishing world and your mind daily learning more -- about the world, yourself, and your untapped capabilities.

Have you ever wished you had more time to read? You may as well wish you had more time to live. You do.

Copyright 2005 Steve Leveen