In Free Will, Harris reminds us of Schopenhauer who said (in German):
Man can do what he will but he cannot will what he wills.
Despite the digital bookshelves stretching beyond Saturn’s rings, the book you read next is simply that which calls you to open it, or to press play on Amazon or Google books (does anyone actually use Google books?…yes I know Oyster just got slurped up by them) or Scribd (my current favorite).
edit, Oct 12, 2020: Now I'm reading physical books, occasionally arcs sent by publishers, classics (and rare books) on archive.org, free samples on Kindle, and audiobooks from Blinkist or Audible. Google's book samples are useful too.
Are You Really Choosing What You Read?
When I ask why they are reading what they are reading, most readers respond with a variation of “my friend recommended it to me.” Where’s the choice in that?
Maybe you feel like you do choose what you read. I thought I did for a while, then I sampled by physical bookshelf to find fantasy from the World Fantasy Award and sci-fi from the Hugo and Nebula awards, a smattering of the classics, American literature, Russian literature, American history, human behavior, and a selection that Christopher Hitchens gave me in the last month (Safe Area Goražde by Joe Sacco is neat and a more serious comic than Saga or Zero or Revival, which are all awesome in their own right).
At first, it bothered me that I wasn’t the chooser of my reading.
Realizing I Don’t Have Reading Free Will
I went into analysis mode: I looked at my childhood and realized my parents had chosen the books to read (even if I’d chosen, it was from a selection of available books); then my teachers had assigned me books to read; then my perceived interests and the above-mentioned awards drew me to further reading.
Notice the causal chain?
Sure, I can decide what to read, but only because books become available for me to read.
I never had a choice in the matter! I’d been duped from the start. I wasn’t pleased.
But as of tonight I’m cool with that. With every word and paragraph and novel and account I read, I increasingly learn how little I know about a broader range of topics. It’s a grand experiment in learning, and I’m loving it. It was Junot Diaz, in a talk at Google, who mentioned even he, who reads a book every three days, hasn’t read 0.001% of all American literature.
One Way Out (In?)
What do do? I say let us read on together. And for heaven’s sake, please do continue recommending me books to read. As I like to joke (as of today when my girlfriend showed me a fun t-shirt reading the same): “I can’t hang out because my weekend is booked.”
But remember, in the case of good books according to Mortimer Adler,
It isn’t how many you can get through, but how many can get through you to you.
Let them pierce your heart and mind.
I close with my favorite line from Antoine de Saint Exupery’s Le Petit Prince: “On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur, l’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.”
We don’t see well without the heart. The essentials are invisible to the eyes.
This post initially aired on erikvanmechelen.com & Medium.com in Oct 2015.