The Minds of Others

Reading Advice for Extroverts

Have you ever wanted to read someone’s mind? That is the power of books. They invite us into the minds of others, to see the world through their eyes. The bookish among us know this. This essay is not for them. I have a friend who is a well-educated and thoughtful people person. He recently admitted to me that he has little desire to read—but he wants to want to read. This essay is for him and for those like him.

It is far more difficult to teach someone to love people than it is to teach someone to love books. People are difficult and often unlovable, and some of the least lovable can be some of the most unavoidable. If you did not love people to at least some extent, I would not even know where to begin.

Loving books can and should be an extension of loving people. Some of us learn to love people through books. Others like yourself, who already love people, can grow even further in that love through books. In terms of their ideas and life perspective, some version of just about anyone you might meet has written a book. Lovers, haters, sages, fools, and everyone in between, all have written and all have something to teach.

In Stephen King’s novel Hearts in Atlantis, the mentor-figure Ted (played by Anthony Hopkins in the film version) encourages a young would-be reader: “There are also books full of great writing that don’t have very good stories. Read sometimes for the story, Bobby. Don’t be like the book-snobs who won’t do that. Read sometimes for the words—the language. Don’t be like the play-it-safers that won’t do that. But when you find a book that has both a good story and good words, treasure that book.” Ted is discussing fiction, so to broaden the discussion to include non-fiction, including academic works, we should include other ingredients to our list of what books provide. To story and language I would add ideas and feelings.

Ted continues, “Come to the book as you would come to an unexplored land. Come without a map. Explore it and draw your own map. […If you don’t like a book,] don’t finish it. A book is like a pump. It gives nothing unless first you give to it. You prime a pump with your own water, you work the handle with your own strength. You do this because you expect to get back more than you give… eventually. […] You read the first ten percent […] and if you don’t like it by then, if it isn’t giving more than it’s taking by then, put it aside.”

Some books are worth reading for everyone. Other books are especially worth reading just for you. It will take trial and error to figure out which. Not all books are created equal. Some convey brilliant ideas, stories, or feelings, but are poorly written. Only a rare few convey all four qualities in equal measure.

Especially in the realm of ideas, it is important to explore both those with whom you agree and those with whom you disagree, in whole or in part. You need encouragement and challenges alike in order to inch toward the truth. The pursuit of truth, of making yourself more whole, lies at the heart of all earnest reading.

But truth and wholeness can be so abstract. Especially in your case, one of the best potential motivators for reading is that it will help you understand others better. In season 3 of House of Cards, novelist Thomas Yates encourages Francis Underwood: “Nobody cares about an idea. They might care about a man with an idea.” Any book you pick up was written by a person with ideas, stories, and/or feelings to convey. They looked at their schedules on many days for many, many months and told themselves, “I need to write this down and writing it matters more than anything else I might do instead.”

Some write for pleasure. Others write for survival. All write in order to reveal; and all do reveal themselves, sometimes despite their best efforts, while trying to reveal other things instead. And they wrote what they wrote so that others would read. Of course, like any human labor of love, writing can be profoundly selfish, so take care to measure the character of each author just as you would discern the trustworthiness of any stranger you meet in person.

One reading strategy may help, especially for academic books, few of which are truly well written. Think of each book as a voice in one moment of a conversation. You can find other books in the conversation and decide which voice to listen to at which moment in the conversation. You can start at the beginning or in the present, or somewhere in the middle. Even within each book, think of your reading like DVR viewing: fast-forward, rewind, pause—you have control. Some authors ramble or repeat themselves. A few even share all of their books’ key ideas in their introductions. Do not feel like you must read every word of every page. Read enough to learn something, then move on. You have little time and many books to choose from.

In her lyrics to “Virginia Woolf” (which you first told me about, incidentally), Emily Ann Saliers offers a vision of what it can look like to find a kindred spirit in print: “They published your diary / and that’s how I got to know you / […] and here’s a young girl / on a kind of a telephone line through time / and the voice at the other end / comes like a long lost friend. / So I know I’m alright / […] ‘cause I just got a letter to my soul.”

Years ago, long lost friends wrote letters to your soul. All you have to do is dig and find them. Happy hunting.

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