Self-Development, Videos

The Benefits of Reading Great Books

The following is a transcript of this video.

“Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use?…They are for nothing but to inspire.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, The American Scholar

Of the many pastimes that occupy us, reading books is not one that ranks high on the list for many people. We live in a culture that prefers the glow of the screen to black ink on paper. And while part of the reason for this lies in the engrossing nature of modern technology, another reason is the ignorance many have regarding the benefits of reading. For books, especially the great ones, are not simply a form of entertainment. They are the source of what the poet Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been known and thought in the world” (Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy) and therefore are one of the greatest tools at our disposal to inspire us to live more fully. For all who feel trapped in an endless repetition of drudgery, reading the great books is an effective means of escape. Or as the author Mark Edmundson wrote:

“We all get socialized once by our parents and teachers, ministers and priests. [Reading great books] is about getting a second chance. It’s not about being born again, but about growing up a second time, this time around as your own educator and guide, Virgil to yourself.”

Mark Edmundson, Why Read?

Many people lament over a lack of good role models and blame their problems on never having been taught how to deal with life’s difficulties. But the great books can help mitigate such deficiencies. Biographies offer us access to role models who exceed any one we are likely to meet in real life. The great works of fiction depict the human condition, and ways to navigate it, in a way unsurpassed by any other medium. While non-fiction books provide us with access to the ideas and worldviews of some of the greatest minds of history. Especially when life grows stale, it is to the great books we should turn to discover new ways of existing in the world. Or as Edmundson further explains: 

“The test of a book lies in its power to map or transform a life. The question we would ultimately ask of any work of art is this: Can you live it? If you cannot, it may still command considerable interest. The work may charm, it may divert. It may teach us something about the larger world; it may refine a point. But if it cannot help some of us to imagine a life, or unfold one already latent within, then it is not major work…Books should be called major and become canonical when over time they provide existing individuals with live options that will help them change for the better.”

Mark Edmundson, Why Read?

But along with providing us with ways to improve our life, the great books can also aid us in a process of self-discovery. The importance of self-knowledge in a life-well lived has long been known, but it is notoriously difficult to attain. For along with our powers of self-deception, we often lack the words to describe and express the subtle and more profound contents of our mind. The great works of fiction can help remedy this situation, as the authors of these works are some of the most astute observers of human nature. Through their characters they depict depths of the human soul few are able to disclose, and thus, their words can be used to unravel the mysteries of our own mind.

“We need to learn not simply to read books but to allow ourselves to be read by them.”

Mark Edmundson, Why Read?

Or as the 20th century French author Marcel Proust explained:

“…it would be inaccurate…to say that of those who would read [my book] as ‘my’ readers. For it seemed to me that they would not be ‘my’ readers but readers of their own selves.”

Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

Until recently, reading the great book of history for the purpose of self-improvement was the spirit which informed the humanities, or liberal arts, in universities across the West. But today an increasing number of humanities professors have abandoned this spirit. Rather than reviving the ideas of the great books and offering them to students as potentially better ways to live, many professors engage in what Soren Kierkegaard called “a tragic misuse of scholarship” (Soren Kierkegaard, For Self Examination). They teach their students to Historicize and criticize the great books, and explain them away as irrelevant relics of the past. The great books are interesting, many modern professors believe, only insofar as they serve as examples of the so-called “backwards” social and political climate of times in which they were produced. 

“We will not have a real humanistic education…until professors, and their students, can give up the narcissistic illusion that through something called theory, or criticism, they can stand above Milton, Shakespeare, and Dante.”

Mark Edmundson, Why Read?

This critical-historical stance is breeding what the philosopher James Edwards called “Normal Nihilists”, that is, students who are masters in critical thinking for its own sake – specialists in tearing down all ideas and claims to beauty, truth, and knowledge.

“It is easy be brilliant when you do not believe in anything.”


Critical thinking is valuable when used to evaluate possible interpretations of events or phenomena before settling on any specific belief. But critical thinking for its own sake can lead one down a dangerous path. For if you only know how to destroy, but not how to build up your own convictions, then you will be left with no standards, ideals, and values to judge your actions and guide you towards higher possibilities. In such a situation life will become a nullity — a meaningless void between two eternities of darkness — lived in slavish devotion to pleasure, or the single-minded pursuit of money or power. Or as Edmundson put it, so long as the humanities continue to churn out highly critical minds who believe in nothing:

“What you’re likely to get are more and more two-dimensional men and women. These will be people who live for easy pleasure…who think of money first, then second, and third; who hug the status quo…They will be people so pleased with themselves (when they’re not in despair at the general pointlessness of their lives) that they cannot imagine that humanity could do better.”

Mark Edmundson, Why Read?

Fortunately, we can engage in our own personal study of the great works of history without subjecting ourselves to the corrupting influence of the modern university. And if we decide to be one of the few to make reading great books a priority what we are likely to discover is that as we become more fixated on the wisdom contained in them, the pull of technology and the white noise of culture around us, will lose its grip on our mind. For as Edmundson explains:

“People who have taught themselves how to live — what to be, what to do — from reading great works will not be overly susceptible to the culture industry’s latest wares. They’ll be able to sample them, or turn completely away—they’ll have better things on their minds.”

Mark Edmundson, Why Read?

Further Readings

Art Used in this Video

Carl Spitzweg 021
Jan Davidsz. de Heem - Still-Life of Books - WGA11266
Eduard Swoboda Bücherwurm
Muller Rudolph - View of the Acropolis from the Pnyx - Google Art Project
Ladislav Mednyánszky - Gloomy Fair I. (Outcasts) - O 4975 - Slovak National Gallery
Ferdinand Hodler - Der Angler, um 1879
Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein - Goethe in the Roman Campagna - Google Art Project
DSCF2316 Dante perdu
Arthur Schopenhauer Portrait by Ludwig Sigismund Ruhl 1815
Miranda en la Carraca by Arturo Michelena
Theodor Kittelsen - Far, far away Soria Moria Palace shimmered like Gold - Google Art Project
François-Xavier Fabre - Oedipus and the Sphinx
Assistants and George Frederic Watts - Hope - Google Art Project
'The Mirror' by William Merritt Chase, Cincinnati Art Museum
Titian - Allegorie der Zeit
Socrates Looking in a Mirror MET DP836598
David - The Death of Socrates
In the Library by John F. Peto, Timken Museum of Art
Caspar David Friedrich 5. 9. 1774-7. 5. 1840 - Severni more v mesicni zari Northern Sea in the Moonlight
John Martin - Sodom and Gomorrah
A philosopher with a celestial globe. Wellcome L0051763
Caspar David Friedrich Winterlandschaft mit der Ruine des Klosters Eldena
Island of the Dead MET DP-14201-003
Watts – Mammon
Rembrandt ManReading