Reading as meditation

Published 2022-04-21.

I find it natural to believe that the point of reading informational nonfiction is to extract its information content, and that if I fail to do this, then my time spent reading must have been wasted. When I reflect on the fact that I remember next to nothing from most of the nonfiction books I have read, there is a part of me that feels dissatisfied.

But my relationship with such books feels healthier when I think of them not as stores of information to be extracted, but as scripts for guided meditations. Rather than thinking of a book as an object that I will consume, I think of it as an environment that I will explore. Its purpose is not to feed me facts and theories that I will later regurgitate, but to direct my attention toward a set of values or questions that will hopefully be valuable to ponder.

This conception of reading as meditation came to me when I reread Julia Galef’s book, The Scout Mindset. This book has plenty of ideas that I think are worth extracting so as to remember them after reading, but that wasn’t why I reread it. I reread it because I wanted to spend six hours thinking about the meaning and value of intellectual honesty.

I don’t have to remember everything I read, and in fact, I don’t necessarily have to remember anything I read. Often it’s valuable to read a book merely to spend time with the author so as to see things from their perspective. This is especially good to do with books that explicitly argue for a value, like The Scout Mindset. The point of reading (and especially re-reading) these books is not to learn new facts or internalize concepts more deeply, but to be prompted and re-prompted with a set of questions, observations, and stories that relate to a theme I want to develop my own thoughts on.

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