Henry Miller: On reading

“A book lying idle on a shelf is wasted ammunition. Like money, books must be kept in constant circulation… A book is not only a friend, it makes friends for you. When you have possessed a book with mind and spirit, you are enriched. But when you pass it on you are enriched threefold.”
Henry Miller, The Books in My Life

Quite the controversial figure, author Henry Miller put down his thoughts on books and education. Though it may seems paradoxical to some extent, there’s great insight into what it means to be a creative individual. The artistic process is analyzed in a different way: not as creation, but more as one of remaking.

Absorb what you can, then release into the world an improved version.

This is something that I agree with. It is not writing that makes a writer, but reading. It is the acquisition of knowledge that urges one to sit down at his desk and write. Acknowledging one’s brevity and frailty, a man must leave behind that which is of use. It is as much a survival instinct as it is the avoidance of anything dangerous.

I do not agree with all the ideas put forth in this book, and this is by no means a review. I am simply absorbing the information offered by Miller and offering it back in a different way. Much simplified, of course, but also adding my own modest contribution in the form of an opinion.

“In this age, which believes that there is a short cut to everything, the greatest lesson to be learned is that the most difficult way is, in the long run, the easiest. All that is set forth in books, all that seems so terribly vital and significant, is but an iota of that from which it stems and which it is within everyone’s power to tap. Our whole theory of education is based on the absurd notion that we must learn to swim on land before tackling the water. It applies to the pursuit of the arts as well as to the pursuit of knowledge. Men are still being taught to create by studying other men’s works or by making plans and sketches never intended to materialize. The art of writing is taught in the classroom instead of in the thick of life. Students are still being handed models which are supposed to fit all temperaments, all kinds of intelligence. No wonder we produce better engineers than writers, better industrial experts than painters.” ― Henry Miller, The Books in My Life

I’d like to paraphrase Jim Rohn and say that there’s a big difference between being a follower and being a student. Between memorizing and learning. Between learning and understanding. Writing cannot be taught. It can only be learned. And it must be damn well understood as a process well before one begins to look for ideas to write about.

Yes, your ideas come to you in the midst of living life. They do not come from books. It is not something to be derived from knowledge, but rather the product of imagination. And imagination loves experience.

“Read as little as possible, not as much as possible! Oh, do not doubt that I have envied those who have drowned in books. I, too, would secretly like to wade through all those books I have so long toyed with in my mind. But I know it is not important. I know now that I did not need to read even a tenth of what I have read. The most difficult thing in life is to learn to do only what is strictly advantageous to one’s welfare, strictly vital…When you stumble upon a book you would like to read, or think you ought to read, leave it alone for a few days. But think about it as intensely as you can. Let the title and the author’s name revolve in your mind. Think what you yourself might have written had the opportunity been yours. Ask yourself earnestly if it be absolutely necessary to add this work to your store of knowledge or your fund of enjoyment. Try to imagine what it would mean to forego this extra pleasure or enlightenment. Then, if you find you must read the book, observe with what extraordinary acumen you tackle it. Observe, too, that however stimulating it may be, very little of the book is really new to you. If you are honest with yourself you will discover that your stature has increased from the mere effort of resisting your impulses.”
Henry Miller, The Books in My Life

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