Are you a receptacle or a collaboratory?
“It is strange that there should be so little reading in the world, and so much writing. People in general do not willingly read, if they can have any thing else to amuse them.” — Samuel Johnson, 1783
In the midweek essay (“Words Matter”), I quoted Christopher Morley on the power of books to change a person’s life. Morley was indirectly responsible for changing mine.
Before I share with you how that happened, I’d like to point to a very unusual book of his work. Christopher Morley was a Rhodes Scholar (along with both of his brothers), a writer whose works spanned novels, poetry, essays, magazine and newspaper columns, plays, and was the first judge of the Book of the Month Club. So it should be no surprise that he was asked to write a good number of prefaces.
One of my favorite works of his is Prefaces Without Books, a compilation of 30 of his prefaces. Spanning from Tom Sawyer to The Complete Sherlock Holmes to The Essays of Francis Bacon and Kidnapped, the book is constructed in such a way that it doesn't require a full commitment; you can read as many or as few essays as you like at a time, and still walk away satisfied. It’s an entire book that has no beginning, middle or end, and is simply a chapter after chapter of reveries and personal anecdotes, wrapped in the dust jacket of literature.
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Morley’s prefaces are a wonderful reminder that Words Matter. You know that I regularly lean on the words of others to complement and highlight my points in these essays. Why struggle to compose a jumble of words that will doubtlessly be glossed over by otherwise busy people, when there are so many masters of the quill who have already expressed similar sentiments in a perfect way?
It’s altogether fitting then that Morley edited the 11th and 12th editions of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (1937 and 1948, respectively). And in his preface to that tome, titled “What Makes Words Memorable?” he got to the essence of why I gravitate toward the written word and a historical, reflective approach to leadership:
“You don't labor in a Pandect like this without perceiving that it’s not just a scrapbook of belles lettres, but also a sort of anthropology; a social history; a diary of the race.”
But it’s in his preface to Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass where I found the validation of People Like Me―people enamored with books; people who can find meaning in pages that haven't been opened for decades (or longer); people who find inspiration in nearly everything they read. In this preface wrote of one of his own favorite tributes to Leaves of Grass, penned by another author:
“The passage I mean was written in 1887 by Robert Louis Stevenson. I wish it might be printed on the wrapper of every copy of the Leaves:
‘A book of singular service, a book which tumbled the world upside down for me, blew into space a thousand cobwebs of genteel and ethical illusion and, having thus shaken my tabernacle of lies, set me back again upon a strong foundation. . . But it is only a book for those who have the gift of reading.’
“How extraordinarily rare are those that have the Gift, is little guessed. To read not as a receptacle but as collaboratory; to read not merely to be amused or shocked or anaesthatized; to read, in short, to resensitize One’s Self — this is an achievement. It cannot and dare not happen too often.”
How many of us have the Gift? As Clifton Fadiman (a contemporary of Morley’s and an intellectual himself) wrote, this includes the ability to “see more in you than there was before” when you reread a book.
In some, it’s also expressed as a Curse, for we’re fully aware that there are more books than we have time to read. Yet we seem to go on buying more books, surrounding ourselves with them, perhaps never reading them. The Japanese call this tsundoku.
The good news is there are ways to learn to read more books. Whether it’s establishing a daily habit, or cheating with an executive summary program, reading is the key to unlocking more ideas about the world and ourselves.
“Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.” ― Gustave Flaubert, 1867
It was Morley himself, as I alluded above, who unlocked a world to me. Doubleday asked him in 1930 to write the preface to the memorial edition of The Complete Sherlock Holmes upon the death of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. "In Memoriam Sherlock Holmes" was more than an essay summing up the 60 stories; it was an introduction to the world of Sherlock Holmes devotees:
“One of the blissful ways of passing an evening, when you encounter another dyed-in-the-blood addict, is to embark upon the happy discussion of minor details of Holmesiana. "Whose gold watch was it that had been so mishandled?" one may ask; and the other counters with “What was the book that Joseph Stangerson carried in his pocket?” Endless delicious minutiae to consider!”
Morley knew this world intimately, for he himself organized it: he was the founder of the Baker Street Irregulars, the literary society dedicated to Sherlock Holmes. Of the hundreds of clubs he founded (including the delightful Three Hours for Lunch Club), the BSI is the only one that is extant.
The concept was so well-loved that hundreds of local groups across the country sprouted in the ensuing decades, and it was at one such group in Connecticut in the late 1980s that I encountered this offbeat little group that welcomed me into its bosom.
The connection I felt with these “kinsprits,” as Morley called such people, led to membership or affiliation with another half-dozen or so groups across New England, culminating in an investiture in the BSI in 2001.
This is more than just padding for my nerd resume; it led to experiences and experiments that gave me expertise in blogging, e-commerce, podcasting, communications. It gave me a passport to find and meet with similar-minded people around the world as I travel, resulting in friendships that would not have been realized without it.
Every day, as I’m learning more about great leaders of the past and present and their methods, I’m finding inspiration all around me. I’m not just a receptacle, but a collaboratory. My sources are everything from tweets to Netflix shows to podcasts. But I give special consideration to what I choose to read.
For me, reading has truly been a Gift.
Imagine what it can be for you.
“Read, every day, something no one else is reading. Think, every day, something no one else is thinking. Do, every day, something no one else would be silly enough to do. It is bad for the mind to be always part of unanimity.” ― Christopher Morley
Thanks, and I'll see you on the internet.