We want to develop breadth of mind, to practice comparative study, to keep the horizon before us; these things cannot be done without much reading. But much and little are opposites only in the same domain. . . [M]uch is necessary in the absolute sense, because the work to be done is vast; but little, relatively to the deluge of writing that . . . floods our libraries and our minds nowadays.
[. . .]
What we are proscribing is the passion for reading, the uncontrolled habit, the poisoning of the mind by excess of mental food, the laziness in disguise which prefers easy familiarity with others’ thought to personal effort. The passion for reading which many pride themselves on as a precious intellectual quality is in reality a defect; it differs in no wise from other passions that monopolize the soul, keep it in a state of disturbance, set it in uncertain currents and cross-currents, and exhaust its powers.
[. . .]
The mind is dulled, not fed, by inordinate reading, it is made gradually incapable of reflection and concentration, and therefore of production; it grows inwardly extroverted, if one can so express oneself, becomes the slave of its mental images, of the ebb and flow of ideas on which it has eagerly fastened its attention. This uncontrolled delight is an escape from self; it ousts the intelligence from its function and allows it merely to follow point for point the thoughts of others, to be carried along in the stream of words, developments, chapters, volumes.
[. . .]
[N]ever read when you can reflect; read only, except in moments of recreation, what concerns the purpose you are pursuing; and read little, so as not to eat up your interior silence.
A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods ( Catholic University Press, 1998), pp. 145 - 149.
I agree with the above, except for the extreme statement, "Never read when you can reflect."
Mortimer Adler, in How to Read a Book, pointed out that being widely-read does not mean one is well-read. I've enjoyed reading some of your old posts about reading and studying, so I wanted to know your opinion on this matter.
Should I aim to read a lot of books? Or is it better to read and reread a few good books? I know some people say one should read widely but read good books deeply. But I've found that a hard balance to maintain. For example, deeply reading an 800-page selection of Aquinas's writings several times would consume almost all of my reading for the next 1-2 months. Also, it's hard for me to switch gears, you might say. If I'm accustomed to reading most of my books through quickly without pausing much to think, then I easily fall into that mode of reading when I'm trying to read deeply.
I imagine you would have some interesting thoughts on this topic, since you have a few decades of reading behind you. Which type of reading benefited you the most?If you could go back and change what you read and how you read during your decades of scholarship, what would you change?
Although desultory reading is enjoyable, it is best to have a plan. Pick one or a small number of topics that strike you as interesting and important and focus on them. I distinguish between bed reading and desk reading. Such lighter reading as biography and history can be done in bed, but hard-core materials require a desk and such other accessories as pens of various colors for different sorts of annotations and underlinings, notebooks, a cup of coffee, a fine cigar . . . .
If you read books of lasting value, you ought to study what you read, and if you study, you ought to take notes. And if you take notes, you owe it to yourself to assemble them into some sort of coherent commentary. What is the point of studious reading if not to evaluate critically what you read, assimilating the good while rejecting the bad? The forming of the mind is the name of the game. This won't occur from passive reading, but only by an active engagement with the material. The best way to do this is by writing up your own take on it. Here is where blogging can be useful. Since blog posts are made public, your self-respect will give you an incentive to work at saying something intelligent.
To the foregoing, I would add, first of all, the magnificent observation of Schopenhauer: "Forever reading, never read." If you want to be read, then you must write. And even if you don't want to be read, you must write -- for the reason supplied in the preceding paragraph.
Now on to your questions.
Widely-read or well-read? You can be both. And you should be both. Switching gears can be difficult, but it can be done.
As for time that could have been better spent, I do not regret reading vast quantities of Continental philosophy, but some of the time spent on the more extreme representatives of that tradition, such as Derrida, was time wasted.
Re-reading these remarks, I realize they are rather trite. But they may be of some use nonetheless.
Robert Samuelson comments on Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 and finds some grounds for a measure of optimism. Conclusion:
America's distinctive beliefs and values are fading, says Murray. Maybe. But our history is that the bedrock values -- the belief in freedom, faith in the individual, self-reliance, a moralism rooted in religion -- endure against all odds. They've survived depressions, waves of immigration, wars and political scandals.
There is such a thing as the American character and, though not immutable, it is durable. In 2011, only 36 percent of Americans believed that "success in life is determined by outside forces," reports the Pew Global Attitudes survey. In France and Germany, the responses were 57 and 72 percent, respectively. America is different, even exceptional, and it is likely to stay that way.