Why Read?

Four of the books I’m reading couldn’t be more different from one another:

  1. Brief Answers to the Big Questions is Stephen Hawking’s final book, a collection of his thoughts about black holes, time travel, the Big Bang, and other important scientific ideas and concepts.
  2. The Midnight Library tells the story of Nora, a depressed woman who wants to die but instead finds herself in a strange place: a library that offers her the chance to live all the lives she has missed out on.
  3. Effortless is Greg McKeown’s follow-up to his 2014 book Essentialism, the former being about how to find and focus on what matters, the latter about how to make your most important work feel, well, effortless.
  4. Mastermind shows how we can level up our thinking Sherlock Holmes-style, thanks to an improved understanding of the brain and human memory.

That’s a pretty diverse selection, don’t you think? And yet…

One of the questions in Hawking’s book is “Will humans survive on earth?” An obvious threat to the answer being “Yes” is climate change which, should the polar caps melt down completely and the Amazon forest disappear, could “make our climate like that of Venus: boiling hot and raining sulphuric acid, with a temperature of 250 degrees centigrade.” In other words: unlivable.

Reading Hawking’s lines, I thought: “Wait a minute. Haven’t I heard this before?” Sure enough, in the opening chapter of The Midnight Library, Nora has a discussion with her librarian about rain – and how to get away from it. The librarian suggests:

“Well, maybe you should be an astronaut. Travel the galaxy.”

Nora smiled. “The rain is even worse on other planets.”

“Worse than Bedfordshire?”

“On Venus it is pure acid.”

Huh. Two very different books. Two very similar ideas. Later in The Midnight Library, it is the librarian’s turn to drop some knowledge:

“Want,” she told her, in a measured tone, “is an interesting word. It means lack. Sometimes if we fill that lack with something else the original want disappears entirely. Maybe you have a lack problem rather than a want problem.”

This, in turn, reminded me of a line in Effortless about gratitude:

“When you focus on what you lack, you lose what you have.

When you focus on what you have, you get what you lack.”

A few pages ahead, McKeown opens a chapter about noticing with a reference to Sherlock Holmes famous chiding of Dr. Watson for his inability to recall the number of steps in the house they share, which he uses, of course, to make a broader point:

“You see, but you do not observe.”

Finally, since Mastermind’s subtitle is “How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes,” guess how she introduces the titular role model? Yup, she uses the exact same story:

Holmes: “For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”

Watson: “Frequently.”

“How often?”

“Well, some hundreds of times.”

“Then how many are there?”

“How many? I don’t know.”

“Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”

Cognition, and therefore recognition, is the most fundamental human activity – and therefore the most fun. Puns aside, all day, our senses perceive, our brains process, and our bodies chemically reward us based on what we discover. Reading regularly and widely simultaneously is one of the best, if not the best, way to keep your mind flourishing by keeping your synapses firing and forever forging new connections.

Why read? Imagine throwing up ten random books, which then stay suspended in mid-air. Your x-ray vision pierces each one, and, quickly, a golden web of connections appears between them. You don’t just see. You also observe.

Assembling pieces of string on a cork board into a bigger picture isn’t just for geniuses and private detectives. It’s how we learn, practice our unique capacity for intelligence, and embrace our natural curiosity. No two books are so different that you couldn’t relate them to one another, and relating – to ideas, to ourselves, to each other – is what humans do. That’s why you should read.