Steve with his
On finding books, time, and
the way to your well-read life
Your definition of well-read is different from traditional ones.
It's not grounded in reading the classics or in a particular
number of books. How then does one know if she or he is well
Being well-read is all
about being in book love today, tomorrow, next week and always. It's
that state you find yourself in when you can't wait to get back to
the book you're readingthose books that keep you up at night and
nudge you awake in the morning.
How can time-starved people who barely have time to make dinner make more time for
Think about what it's like
to be in romantic love and what happens to your schedule when
you are. You do what you need to but you make time for love.
Book love is similar: it makes it easy to find the time,
because that time finds you. In your heart, you know it's the most
important thing you're doing. And your heart has its reasons.
"The secret is to actively
people are rather passive
in their book
may have a handful of books
but it's generally a
There are so many books now to choose
from. How do readers find the ones they'll fall in love
The secret is to actively choose your books.
Most people are rather passive in their book selection: they may
have a handful of books to read, but it's generally a haphazard
collection. I advocate a fundamentally different approach, where you
look into yourself and identify your interests and passions. Then
you search out the best books to fuel those interests and passions.
Be an athlete, not a spectator.
LP: You recommend that readers keep a List
of Candidates rather than a reading list. What's the
A reading list carries a sense of obligation,
like those lists we were assigned as students.
A List of Candidates
carries this important difference: you have the freedom of never
having to read the book.
"Isn't it ironic that we often give up
on people faster than we'll give up on a book? We need to
cultivate new habits for our reading lives that allow us to be
We should have scoresbetter yet,
hundredsof candidates on our list, connected to our interests and passions.
Otherwise, we risk being caught in a devolving reading experience,
where the books aren't that great and so our reading languishes.
I was caught in this stage for many years. When you make a List of Candidates that
you're excited about, your reading life and your whole life zoom up
to a higher level.
LP: So from your List of Candidates you create a physical Library of
Candidates of books you may decide to read. How have you arranged your own
Library of Candidates?
I have hundreds of candidate books and devote a
whole wall to them at home, in my office. (Actually, it feels more
like a library now.) I have different sections and label the
shelves. The ones I'm most excited about reading go on the far right
of each section. Under Biography right now, you'll find Florence
Nightingale, St.-Exupery and Wodehouse. I recommend keeping
candidates separate from those you've read, which go into your
Living Library. Mine really does live for meI frequently pull works
off the shelf to check something and reinforce my memory.
You talk about people giving
themselves permission in their reading. What does this mean?
At our workshops we
hand out a list of permissions. One is to give yourself permission
to give up on books that don't speak to you. Isn't it ironic that
we often give up on people faster than we'll give up on a book?
LP: What do you mean when you say that
we give up on people more quickly?
SL: Think of being at a cocktail party. If the
first person you talk to strikes you as a bore, do you keep talking
to them for the whole party because you started with them? Why
should it be any different with books?
LP: What about the friend who says you simply
must read a particular book...
and you hate it?
SL: Some of the best book recommendations come from
friends who know us wellit's like having an informal book group.
For friends who don't know us that well, it's good to ask
them what they liked so much about the book and see if that
resonates. Then get one or two more recommendations.
people think that reading is a reclusive, nonsocial activity. But
you say it offers a reason to connect with people. How?
SL: I find that reading makes me a more
interested person. If I'm reading a book about sailing the Leeward
Islands in the Caribbean, I'm eager to share what I learn with other
sailing buffs and, conversely, to find out more about what they know
on the subject. The more interests you're pursuing through your
Library of Candidates, the larger your repertoire of ways to connect
with other people.
LP: Why do people deny themselves the pleasures
People suppress desires all
the time in order to accomplish other goals. Then you get to a
place in life where you just can't deny yourself any longer.
And yet, you don't know how not to. I'm hoping that this book will help by offering practical
techniques for people to reach a higher level in their lives,
more quickly and with more confidence.
LP: You were one of those people who suppressed that desire.
The irony about The Little Guide is that you've been a
purveyor of "tools for serious readers" for 18 years but didn't
consider yourself a serious reader until a couple of years ago. What
caused you to want to read more?
"Once you listen to a book, you realize you can
grasp inflections and nuances that escape you in print."
I can answer that in one word: audiobooks.
I suddenly found myself having the means to read serious books
during otherwise uni-task timewhen I was driving or washing the
dishes. I started with novels by Frederick Forsyth and then found
David McCullough. I was hookedin head-over-heels book
LP: Many readers look upon
audiobooks as not really reading. What are they
We tend to view reading as a silent, visual
activity, so listening feels as if we're
And audiobooks seem like modern interlopers into
the classic world of books. Yet storytelling predates printed books.
The first stories were spoken, not written, and the first books
were designed to be read aloud. Once you listen to a book, you
realize you can grasp inflections and nuances that escape you in
print and can sometimes absorb much more of what the author had in
LP: There are other objections to audiobookssomeone doesn't
like a narrator, for instance, or doesn't have a long commute so
can't get into the story.
I don't have a long commute,
either. I listen to audiobooks when I'm exercising, washing
the cars, doing chores around the house. And if one narrator
doesn't work for you, try two or three others. Give up on that
audiobook if it doesn't please you, but don't give up on the whole art form.
Audiobooks can open up a whole new universe you
couldn't experience any other way. They are only 25 years old, but
what a stupendous gift to this and future generations.
LP: Do you read more than one
book at a time?
Yes, and I strongly recommend it. People
have more than one mood and interest in any given time period. Some
books may take you more than a year to read, but so
what? I only read Wind from the
Carolinas, a historical novel about the Bahamas, when I'm in
the Bahamas. It has stretched over three years. I love it that
LP: You were
initially skeptical of reading groups. What changed your mind?
The universal statements I heard from the book
group members I interviewed: "I read books I wouldn't have, and I
love them" and "I get more out of the book when we discuss it." It's
the capacity that a group has to stretch the individual. A great dialogue can elevate
a book to a new level for the reader.
"My life changed from black and white to
color when I seized my well-read life. And you can accomplish
this with some simple techniques."
LP: You were so won over by
reading groups that you started your own. Tell us about
There are a dozen guys in my group, and we
meet once every other month in a restaurant. We call ourselves The
World of Mules Book Group, from that Ogden Nash couplet: "In the
world of mules, there are no rules." So
far we're reading only nonfiction and had a fantastic
discussion about Man's Search for Meaning.
Mmmm, yes. And let me quickly say that there are lots of
groups that are women only, and I respect that.
LP: The Little Guide is the keystone for a
Well-Read Life campaign that you've embarked
on. What's involved, and what do you hope to
All across America
there are millions of smart, capable people living in the shadow of
books. I was one. My life changed from black and white to color when
I seized my
"On one level a person's well-read
life is about books.
But ultimately your well-read
life is about your life well-lived."
well-read life. And you can accomplish this with some simple
techniques. It's like driving a carit's a mystery until you do it a
few times. I want to share what
I've learned so that others can become the readers they want to be,
and live their larger lives. What would you read if you knew you had
time? What would you learn if you knew you could?
LP: Isn't there more to it than
Yes. There's the
desire. I have great respect for people's ability to seize the lives
they know in their bones is available to them. They just need an
invitation to the dance, a hug and a bit of friendly advice. On one
level a person's well-read life is about books. But ultimately your
well-read life is about your life well-lived.