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The modern world equates the intelligent person will the well-read person. It's difficult to think of anyone arriving at any worthy insights without having read an impressive number of books.
But despite the pressure to read through multiple awarded and fascinating books, we might pause and reflect on an interesting aspect of the pre-modern world: Reading was important, but it never put people under any pressure to read very much at all. It was more important to read a few books very well and not waste time on a great number of volumes.
The premodern world was obsessed with asking, "what is the point is of reading?" They had answers too.
The modern world has adopted an Enlightenment mantra that states there should be no limit to how much we read because we read in order to know everything. We don't read to understand God or to follow civic virtue; we read to understand the whole of human existence.
This maximalist legacy of the Enlightenment idea of reading is present within the publishing industry, within the way books are presented to the public at school and in shops, and within our own guilty responses to the pressure to read more.
Our exhaustive approach to reading does not make us truly happy. We appear to have a permanent sense of being under-read when compared with our peers and what the media has declared respectable.
To simplify our lives, we should ask the same old-fashioned question: What am I reading for? Rather than answering 'to know everything' we might find a more limited, focused, and useful goal. A new mantra to guide our reading may be: we want to read in order to learn to be content.
With this new targeted ambition in mind, to read for personal contentment, the pressure to read all the time starts to lift. We have the option of only a dozen books on our shelves and yet feel in no way intellectually undernourished or deprived.
When we know that we are reading to be content, we won't need to chase every book published. The more we understand what reading is for us, the more we can enjoy intimate relationships with a few works that deeply shaped us to live and die well.
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