On the end of a semester:

From a former professor:

“You can’t and shouldn’t read everything. You don’t have time, and you’ll break your eyes. So you’ll have to learn pretty quickly how to divide the chaff from the grain, and you’ll have to skim the unimportant stuff, and in particular you’ll have to figure out who you love and pursue them doggedly. I’d say for most of these authors, do a little research first, read one book that you suspect is their best, and if you find that book to be great, don’t shy away from reading everything. Don’t be afraid to fall in love with a person, a time period, a place. It’s a long world; you might find that Weimar Germany or Reformation England or Minoan Crete is the best place for your head to be. And study the people as much as the books. I think it’s as helpful to know that Dickens had a wall-length mirror and he impersonated his characters in front of it, or that Hrabal’s entire writing career was inspired by a laundry tag that read: ‘to remove some stains it may be necessary to destroy the material.’ In particular, once you find an author you love, once you’ve struck your genius, read their failures; then you’ll know where there’s work left to do. And find or make yourself a history, that’s a lot of what this project is. Start drawing lines between these people and start figuring out how those lines lead to you, and where they lead after you.

But (the biggest but) don’t think everything is in books. The assembly instructions for a charcoal grill can be – and are – more surprising and enlightening than ten novels by Jonathan Franzen. As I’ve said before, you should be reading science, philosophy, history, field manuals, art, music, and whether it’s a song, a painting or a grocery list you should be reading it with a loving but critical eye.

And, of course, reading is just a kind of guided seeing. The most important thing, as you’ve heard me say a million times now, is that you never stop looking around and wondering what the hell is going on. If things don’t quite make sense, you’re headed in the right direction.”

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