The art of not reading. Or, selective attention as a means for intellectual survival by @AliyaMughal1

Cross-posted from: ALIYA MUGHAL
Originally published: 01.01.18

Reading is a serious business. It takes precious, irrecoverable, finite time to devote yourself to a book. In doing so, you make an active decision to press pause on your ordinary life so as to step into another world, another place, another time.


I often have this debate with my partner, who has as ferocious a reading habit as me, but who methodically ploughs his way through his wish list, even when he complains about the plot holes, inconsistencies and poor dialogue.

I admire his commitment to finishing everything he starts, it’s a noble demonstration of his respect for the writer who’s spent their time and energy creating the book he reluctantly holds and a mark of his stubborn dedication.

This, however, does not work for me. I see no sense in the perfunctory approach.  Either that, or I have no staying power and am eternally distracted by all the other temptations on my own bottomless reading list.

In the act of reading, I feel I’m allowing someone else into my mind, with their ideas and their words, their dialogue and their arguments, which invariably trigger and twist my own in unexpected, illuminating ways.  It’s like inviting someone into your imaginary landscape.

So if a book doesn’t hold my attention, if after persisting for a reasonable time and then realising that it’s the book and not my lack of focus that’s creating the resistance, in other words – it just isn’t as interesting to me as I thought it would be – I quit it. I move on to the next, because life’s too short and there are too many other books out there that I could be spending my time with.


In his collection of ‘Essays and Aphorisms’, he highlights the importance of cultivating what today would be called selective attention, in other words, choosing wisely what you add to your internal library.

The art of not reading is a very important one….A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad books.”

He goes on in quite a snobbish, scathing fashion (perhaps embittered by the relative lack of attention his own work got compared to others in his era) to suggest that reading too much is indicative of a wayward mind, of someone who lacks the ability or the intelligence to think for themselves.

On the one hand, he’s right. I will readily admit that while reading is essential to the act of writing, it can border on being an intoxicating habit that becomes a convenient distraction from my own work.

Like alcohol, in small measured quantities, reading is a delicious, positively mind-altering activity of immeasurable worth.  Consume too much though, and excess will muddy the waters, take you down tangential tracks and ultimately leave you feeling a bit sullied and remorseful for “letting someone else direct your thoughts”, as Schopenhauer said.

Reading changes you, it alters your perceptions, renews your perspective (or affirms it if you choose books/writers that confirm your bias), develops your empathy, it opens up other worlds and wonders to which you may not otherwise have access.  It’s an essential, life-affirming activity that deserves to be taken seriously.

To end with a word from one of the wisest of them all (whose essay ‘On the Shortness of Life’ is well worth the time):

“You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind.”

*For other books worth reading (in my humble opinion), check out my Essential Reading list for recommendations covering philosophy, literature, autobiographies, journalists’ memoirs, poetry, fiction and more.

Aliya Mughal : I’m a dedicated follower of wordsmithery and wisdom in its many guises. Reader, writer, storyteller – if there’s a thread to follow and people involved, I’m interested. I’ve built my life around words, digging out the stories that matter and need to be told – about science, feminism, art, philosophy, covering everything from human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, to famine and the aid game in Rwanda, to how the intersection of art and science has the power to connect the disparate forces of humanity with the nanoscopic forces of our sacred Earth. Find me @AliyaMughal1

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