What Your 7th Grade Teacher Never Told You About Reading
The other prisoners talked about how “bad” they were—subtly implying that they could rip off your arms and legs and hurl them out a window. But when Rubin Carter was in the room, even they tempered themselves. Bald head, big build, and a mustache that could scare away most children, the boxer was unmissable.
Yet, things were not turning out quite the way he'd hoped. Sandwiched in those days were appeals and legal battles and social campaigns that all seemed to dissipate into thin air. A motley crew of celebrities and supporters, including Bob Dylan (who, through all of this, somehow managed to wear flowers in his hat and pull it off) had failed to overturn a spine-tingling triple-murder conviction.
And so, the boxer was back in prison with—on judge’s orders—a sentence whose last day would coincide neatly with his last breath.
Then, one day, in the heat of 1978, something happened. It was a pinprick of light on the wall—a prison barricade. And suddenly, like a magic trick, that pinprick of light burned a hole right through it. On the other side, Carter saw cars driving on their roads and children meandering on their sidewalks. In effect: he saw normal life, just within reach.
Carter was confused—what he was seeing made as much sense as a pigeon attempting a backflip—but as soon as it came, the vision had left. And now, a new thought appeared: Perhaps the walls weren’t real. Perhaps this imprisonment wasn’t real.
Perhaps freedom was closer than he thought.
The truth is, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter knew the symptoms of “institutionalization”—the part where your spirit, no matter how unflappable it is, starts to lose its wings. You stop shaving. You stop showering. Your friends and family stop visiting. And Carter, for all his strength, knew that if he didn’t do something, he just might melt.
So when he sat down with Kidrin, a supporter who grew up watching him bob-and-weave on black-and-white television sets, Carter confessed that he needed something different. His depression and anger were starting to choke him out on the proverbial floor. In turn, he wanted Kidrin to become his unofficial librarian.
What soon followed was every 7th grade teacher’s most unrealized dream.
* * *
In middle school, I hated reading. And not only did I hate it, but I was also fantastically slow at it. I was like a turtle who made everybody else look like Formula One race car drivers. Back then, reading was something we were told to do by people who wore glasses and gave off a distinct (but accurate) “I’m smarter than you” vibe.
So let’s tackle the obvious: why would you read when you have so much more important stuff to do? You have emails, texts, meetings, work, and, when the dog shits all over your mattress, you have to pick it up. Essentially: life is a dog taking a shit on your mattress, but constantly, all over your schedule. There is, you might bemoan, no time for reading. And intellectually, while you might agree that “reading is good”, it’s good to you in the same way that carrots and celery are good—sure, they have all these “vitamins” and “will make me less blind”, but going a week or five without it isn’t a big deal.
Well, I’d like to tell you that I survived seventh grade. But my view on books? That died harder than an 80’s perm. Because, while we know that “reading is good” in the same way that “you should eat your vegetables” or “you should clip your toenails”, reading can be magic—you just have to sell yourself on it first.
* * *
When his friends started recommending books on boxing (an ode to Carter’s legacy), or detective stories (an ode to his legal battles), Kidrin told them frankly, “this is horseshit”.
He remained firm: “I’m looking for books that will bend his mind in a different way”.
While I’d never dismiss a book that involved two guys hitting each other in the face, the point is this: when people read, they start looking at the world in new and interesting ways. When you get a new perspective, it’s like getting a new pair of glasses that may or may not work. Some help, while others don’t help much at all (and trust me, you will run into books that don’t help at all).
When Carter started reading On Man’s Search for Meaning (an account of Victor Frankl’s experience at Auschwitz), he wasn’t just reading for kicks. He was reading for his life.
Frankl argues that suffering—if we’re clever enough—can be used to add greater meaning to our lives. This sentiment rung in Carter’s head like a bell, but more practically, it changed the emotional palette of a man who has been unjustly accused of triple-murder.
Which, as you can tell, is a rather hard thing to do.
Books, then—as Paul Graham contends—are fabulous at training our model of the world. Reality is a distinct, separate entity outside the confines of our dizzying, anxious brains. It can be hard to make sense of it all. Yet reading, paradoxically, brings us closer to that reality because it allows us to think about the world afresh. And the reason it’s a paradox? Because reading is an act of essentially ignoring real life (at least for an hour or two). We’re not dealing with our parents or our brothers or our friends or our dogs. We’re escaping into a book.
Yet, unlike most escapes, this escape oddly gives us a better sense of where and what we are. It trains us to know the real world better than relying on our half-baked theories that we came up with while wolfing down a burrito for lunch.
And it even does this training unconsciously. One of the worst things about books is that, if you’ve read a lot of them, you might one day look at the shelves you’ve amassed and then break down and start crying when you realize how little you remember. Can you recall the details of the Civil War? What about the names of those involved in Jamestown? How about that book you read on “success” and “synergy” that you said you were (“100%”) going to put into practice?
The truth is, you don’t remember any of it, do you?
For some, that might be reason enough to quit reading and start knitting professionally instead. But what the books do, as most people don’t realize, is train not just our conscious model of the world, but our unconscious one too. When somebody tells you something and you have a “feel” that that idea is nonsense, it’s been informed by all the training you’ve done under the invisible hand of reading. If you’ve read several books on economic theory, and years later, someone tells you an idea about the marketplace that “just doesn’t feel right, but you don’t know why”, that’s your unconscious running its magic. You might not be able to trace the source of the knowledge in the same way you don’t remember when and where you learned the word “pineapple”—but that implicit knowledge is still there, operating on your decision-making whether you like it or not.
Plus, if you really want to remember what you read, there’s a simple fix: take notes.
* * *
When Carter read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, he saw himself in the pages. When later asked what his alma mater was, Malcolm replied curtly: “books”.
Carter was not about to give up that tradition.
As Ryan Holiday puts it: “People have been moving West, leaving school, investing their savings, getting dumped or filing for divorce, starting businesses, quitting their jobs, fighting, and dying for thousands of years”.
The solutions to all the problems you’re about to face—from your fear of commitment to your fear of bananas—can all be found in a book. Yes, real life experience (that part where you touch the stove and learn to never touch stoves again) is vital. But reading is a fun little shortcut. Smarter people than me have spent years trying to fix their situations, outmaneuver them, gain clarity, or even simply find the inner strength to accept them. And they’ve spent even more of those years trying to find, as Holiday puts it, “a way of life.”
So use them. For cooking, we use recipes from fiery, British chefs who yell at grown men trying to make pasta. In basketball, we use our middle-aged, suburban coaches who tell us not to screw up that lay-up. In life? We have books. Carter saw Malcolm X in himself. And that was only because Malcolm X quite literally had the exact same problem that Carter had (e.g. being incarcerated). Malcolm X found himself, wrote about it, and in turn, let Carter find himself too.
Whether you’re looking for a fancy new marketing strategy that’ll blow your mother’s socks off, or you’re looking to become the kind of person who doesn’t need your mother’s approval in the first place, books have the ultimate premium on good ideas. From being okay with yourself, to having a nervous breakdown and realizing that the “self” isn’t even real (it’s a thing), the smartest people are wrestling and writing about these very conundrums. And unless you live in the middle of an arctic tundra, they’re all pretty easy to get your hands on.
Like Carter, your way of life will refine and transform itself right before your eyes. All books are—sadly—not created equal. You’ll put into practice that “seven-point plan” from a book that was hopeless to begin with. You’ll read a classic that didn’t really do much, other than remind you that some books can be insanely boring. Despite the hours you spent, sometimes, you won’t find the answer you were looking for. Other times, you’ll hitch on to a new idea that makes you worse, rather than better.
Yet, none of this really troubles me. Because, at the end of the day, it’s like paying fifty-six dollars for a mansion. Sure, I could have bought myself fifty-six cheeseburgers on the dollar menu. Yes, I could’ve used those fifty-six dollars in a myriad of other ways. But a mansion for fifty-six dollars is a steal.
And reading books (and doing it forever) is a steal all the same. In the end, you’ll come out on top.
* * *
I grew up in the sleepy humdrum of a corn-riddled Midwest. Sure, a lot of instructive, valuable life experience was accrued (for example, watching TV). Yet, I only get to live and understand and empathize with my fixed set of life experiences, and that’s it.
Reading novels and stories do the opposite. They all train you to take the driver’s seat. Or the captain’s chair. Or the flight deck. Or even the boxing ring, be a #1 contender, and then get promptly thrown into a jail cell. The point is, we only get to learn from a very limiting set of life experiences. But when you read, your own personal little universe includes not just you, but everyone you read about. You get more empathetic. You develop better understanding. And you get to live the lives of thousands of people where you wouldn’t, otherwise, have that chance.
I’ll agree with you on this: reading Ethan Frome isn’t going to strike you with a mind-bending, life-altering message that will edify the core of your being. Some books you read, quite frankly, are going to suck and they’re going to suck hard. But overtime, books, like compound interest, will do you good, little by little. Fiction often gets side swept, while a lot of people online dart and topple over each other toward the self-help aisles (I’m guilty as charged). But the same logic applies.
When we don’t read, we tend to view what’s in front of us in a very fixed way—inflexible, in our own heads, trapped in our own loop of discursive thinking. In a letter to Angelo Dundee, Carter writes: “…we have all, from time to time, been prisoners of one kind or another; we have all, at times, been prisoners to our own assumptions. Because we assume a thing is so, it must be so.” Well, in just the same way, we’re prisoners to our own set of life experiences. This can be good; this can be bad.
When Carter looked back at his own life—one that was characterized by a love of strutting, booze, and late nights—it was only after reading Siddhartha (an account of the Buddha’s life) that he saw his youth reflected right back at him. The tale is, of course, older than your grandmother’s grandmother: the Buddha lives a coddled, cushy life, until one day, he encounters real suffering for the first time (known as the “Four Sights”: an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and an ascetic monk). Siddhartha realizes that basing his life around “pleasure-mongering” and “self-indulgence” was exactly the thing causing him so much pain. Carter, now older, saw that it was the source of his pain, too.
Yes, podcasts are great (I have one of my own). Videos can be good, too. That online course you bought for nine installments of $299? I’m sure it was worth the money. Yet, as Malcolm X puts it: “People don’t realize how a man’s whole life can be changed by one book”.
For whatever reason, if you pick the right stuff, books tend to have a premium on good ideas that other mediums, pound for pound, just can’t match up with. And this might be a function of the fact that the form itself allows for the dizzying depth and nuance that other mediums don’t. Books, for whatever cultural norms we’ve established, can literally drone on about the same topic for 200 pages worth of material (and do it well), whereas a podcast that’s 2 hours on one topic can make the most patient of listeners jump out of a window. And whereas a good chunk of bloggers and journalists tend to frame their stories with angles that tap into our fears and anxieties (which translate nicely into pageviews), books, while not totally exempt, don’t have that same pressure.
Because books can push past the surface details (the complicated, tricky material that’s hard to address in, say, an article like this one) and go really deep and sustain that depth. Where you saw an issue—let’s say it’s how to shoot a basketball—someone else can talk about that same topic in a depth and a way that not only complicates the issue, but shows you every angle and every perspective, until your brain overheats like a baked potato in a microwave.
The opposite is also true. We’re overwhelmed by life. It is complicated and tricky and chaotic to get through. Yet, books, when done well, can also be the simplifying force. When Cal Newport wrote his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, he’s of course diving into the nuance of what happens when you try to make a living and fall flat on your face. But he’s also simplifying the process by giving you a rather easy mental model to follow: forget everything, and just focus on getting good at skills that are rare and valuable. The ability—to complicate and to simplify—is what help books do their job, and produce better thinkers as a result.
Because the best stuff isn’t just trapped in the classics that you hated in high school (though, the classics can be quite good). And the best stuff isn’t just trapped in the self-help aisles, either (though, they can be quite good as well). Some genres tend to give you more bang for your buck (e.g. biographies, nonfiction, etc.) depending on what you’re after. But the more you read, the more you realize that great ideas are trapped in books of all colors, stripes, and genres. All you have to do, then, is read.
And of course, get book recommendations that don’t suck (I can help).
* * *
Books can be fun. They can make us feel less alone. They can make us laugh. They can offer pleasant (and therapeutic) consolation. More importantly, they can make us better people.
Basically, they’re the literal, exact opposite of your Facebook newsfeed.
And for Carter, they helped save him. It would be nearly nineteen years after his incarceration that Carter would be freed, move to Canada, and—in defying every stereotype known to man—find a steamy, hot passion for gardening.
As Carter said, “when you can’t look out, you look in.” And, just like we all should, he did just that. One day, when he was still in prison, he decided (inspired by a book) that he didn’t need his imposing superficialities anymore. He just wanted to be a person.
So he let his hair grow—evaporating his trademark menace. And when he returned to a different facility, Carter expected shock and surprise. But, with hair grown in and a tamer look to boot, nobody even recognized him. The prisoners who talked about how “bad” they were—they carried on. Carter was now invisible. He didn’t look the part.
And to him, it was proof that “his studies were working”.
* * *
Special thanks to Vysali Soundararajan and Kevin Sanji for looking over drafts of this!
1. All stories and quotes are from the book, "Hurricane" by James Hirsch. It's a page-turner—highly recommend.
2. Carter's italicized words to Angelo Dundee were actually underlined in the original letter.
3. The value of forgotten ideas (and how our unconscious works) is from Paul Graham—his stuff is awesome.