One of my earliest memories of my Grandfather Pollard is a figure sitting in an armchair in the living room of my grandparents’ house in Columbia, MO, reading. My grandfather was a prodigious reader, and his bookshelves held a veritable pantheon of great authors: Cooper, Dickens, Dumas, Eliot, Emerson, Hawthorne, Hugo, Irving, Scott and Stevenson, to name a few.
When he died, I inherited most of his books. I felt honored, and I felt a connection that I think influences me to this day. In the front of many of the books, along with his signature, are a series of dates. I once asked my grandmother what they meant. She said that each time he read a book he would record the date. So if there were four dates, it meant he read the book four times.
I wish he had written notes in the margins so that I could benefit from his many dips in the well of the likes of Emerson, but he didn’t. I think I can understand why. It’s the same reason why I’ve always been reluctant to write in a hardcover book. It seems almost sacrilegious. I wish, too, that he would have talked to me about what he read, but he wasn’t much of a talker. I think for him, as it is often for me, reading was a private avocation.
We develop a love for reading at an early age, or at least we do if we are lucky. And we’re lucky, too, if that love lasts a lifetime—in quiet moments, stealing away to discover new worlds through books or reconnecting with the literary companions of our youth.
Nothing can compare to a good book. For the better part of a year, I read daily from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “The Bully Pulpit,” a large and well-written history of the Progressive Era and the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. When I finally finished the book, I felt a loss that was palpable. I really didn’t want it to end.
New York Times writer Frank Bruni, in a column last fall about “The Gift of Reading,” said “reading fuels the fires of intelligence and imagination,” and he described how reading is transformative for children, especially those who come from disadvantaged homes.
We know that successful people read a lot. Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and George W. Bush are some who come to mind. Bush wrote in his memoirs that he and Karl Rove competed to see who could read the most history books in one year. He read 95, and Rove read 110.
A few years ago, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos asked his top executives to read three books and join him in a day-long “book club” discussion of each one. He used the books as frameworks for charting the future of Amazon. The books he chose were:
- “The Effective Executive” by Peter Drucker
- “The Innovator’s Solution” by Clayton Christensen
- “The Goal” by Eliyahu Goldratt
You often see the Thomas Jefferson quotation, “I cannot live without books,” inscribed on bookmarks. The quote comes from a letter to his friend John Adams. During the 1780s, Jefferson began building the largest collection of books in America at Monticello. When the British burned the Library of Congress during the War of 1812, Jefferson offered to sell his collection to Congress to replace what had been destroyed. Congress purchased 6,487 books from Jefferson in 1815 for $23,950. Jefferson then went on to acquire several thousand more books, since, as he told Adams, “I cannot live without [them].” *
In the digital age, we don’t need to acquire books like Jefferson did, but we do need to take the time to read. Studies have shown that reading increases intelligence and brain power, it helps you relax and sleep better, and it even can help fight Alzheimer’s disease.
So why don’t we read more, at least for pleasure and not work? Often it’s because we don’t make the time. In my next post, I’ll talk about reading techniques and give suggestions on how to make reading a part of your daily routine.
* Unfortunately, nearly two-thirds of the volumes Congress purchased from Jefferson were destroyed in a second fire on Christmas Eve in 1851.