The art of possessing books

May 29, 2021 • ☕️ 5 min read

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When you read a book, at what point can you say that you’ve possessed a book, that it has become a part of your values system and mindset? Is the act of buying a book enough for you to say it’s yours?

So many books, so little time - Frank Zappa

Here are some ideas I learned about how can you read a book and possess it, in a way no one else would have.

Reading isn’t a passive skill

You can’t just read. Your brain is actively thinking about what you’re reading. Even fiction (Some would say especially fiction).

When you read, your brain actively processes the information and painting a mental image about what’s coming in from your eyes. It’s like you’re having a conversation with the book. You’re fully engaged.

And I’m not talking about mindlessly looking at some text, I’m talking about when you’re reading the words and your brain is understanding and making associations about them. If you’re a sound human being, you can’t read passively.

Reading and writing go hand in hand

First, you read, then what you read makes you think, then you write to fully understand and remember the ideas. If you say you understand some topic but can’t explain it, chances are you haven’t understood it enough. Writing it down will clear your brain and help you see what you got in from what you read.

Writing while you’re reading will make you a more active reader. It keeps your mind awake. You also enable the generation effect, which says “information is better remembered if it is generated from one’s mind rather than simply read”.

Writing in the margins

For many people, writing anything in a book is a pet peeve. It was for me too, but I’ve long since made peace with it. Because writing ideas down in the book far outweigh the romanticism of keeping your books ink-free.

But you should write in the margins, also called marginalia, whatever the book is making you think. It also enables associations between ideas. Instead of taking notes somewhere else and be lost in the space of data, you keep your notes bound to the idea. It’ll also enable you to see what made you think while making that note, Not only you’d see what you were thinking you’ll also see why you were thinking that, how did you arrive at that idea which you wrote.

You’ll need to agree, argue, challenge, dismiss the author many times. Writing in the margins will help you do that and makes you remember why you agree or disagree with the author. If you disagree with the author’s ideas, you’ll learn why you disagree with them. It’ll force you to make your opinion even stronger or change it altogether.

So taking notes while reading a book comes down to addressing the differences or similarities between the ideas you have and the author has.

Owning a book doesn’t mean possessing a book

Casey Neistat after buying his sunglasses, sprays them with white paint and scratches them all over, and then wears them. Why? To make them uniquely his. No one in the world will have sunglasses the same as him.

Similarly, when you buy a book, you own it but you don’t possess it. Writing in the margins is one way you can call a book uniquely yours, Casey Neistat style.

“No two people will ever read the same book” - Edmund Wilson

What will be unique about how you read a book is how it makes you think. For some people, a book like meditations will not make any sense but for others, they’ll re-read it 50 times and still get value out of it.

You want to possess a book in such a way that even if you lose it, you still have command over it, you still possess it, deep inside of your brain. You’ve internalized it.

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Not all books are to be read the same way

You don’t have to read every book word to word. Many non-fiction books contain just one or two good ideas and the rest is just noise. The skill you want to cultivate is to have good judgment. Judge whether what you’re reading has any value or not. If not, skim it or skip it.

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few are to be chewed and digested”- Francis Bacon.

Some people have a rule that they read every book word to word. There’s nothing wrong with that. If they enjoy reading everything in a book who are we to tell them otherwise. But even for them, a good judgment about which book to pick up to read will save a lot of time down the line. If you are such a person, don’t just pick up any book you see on the bookshelf. Read and research about it because after all, you’re going to invest a considerable amount of time and energy going through that and you don’t want to waste your time.

Create your list of books to re-read

Not every book needs to be possessed.

The books that talk to you, the ones that align with your worldview or the ones which make you alter your worldview, can’t be consumed in one go. Those books would have so much value to you that it becomes imperative to re-read them again and again.

And every time you read that book, you’re going to leave with a bunch of new ideas. Good books work that way. If you read Harry Potter as a child and loved it and you reread it you’ll most probably be baffled by how much you didn’t know.

Cultivate your taste

You don’t have the same eyes, brain, tongue, values as any other person. So how can you think you’ll like whatever they’re reading? Chances are they also don’t have a taste of their own and are just following the recommendations by someone else.

Yes, there is a chance that you might like it but don’t take it as a rule. Make peace with not liking or not reading what everyone else is reading. Cultivate your taste. It won’t leave you astray.

If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking - Murakami

This is because cultivating your taste takes time. It won’t happen overnight. You’ll have to be very honest with yourself and it’s easier said than done. You have to answer your questions like “Why do I like what I like?”, “What is it making me think?”

So take recommendations, but with a grain of salt. You may not like what others like and that’s okay.

Conclusion

In essence, we don’t read a book to just read it. We read it to grasp the ideas present in them. Some books require multiple readings to do that, be it fiction or non-fiction, others require generous skimming. But it’s all about ideas nonetheless.

So don’t waste your time and energy on reading something and forgetting it. Challenge your assumptions, reinforce your opinions, write your ideas down, internalize the ideas you align yourself most with, and most importantly, have fun!


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“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” - Murakami