I Cuss When I Read
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
“Oh.. come the fuck on!”
I blurted those vulgar phrases at Denver International Airport. Out loud. Fortunately, I blurted the crass vulgarity during the air travel bedlam that the United States underwent on December 22, 2022.
And no, I didn’t swear because my flight cancelled. Surprisingly, I flew out.
And no, I’m not opening this piece with f-bombs to test a Mark Manson tack with my business.
I blurted it while reading. I react aloud as I read. And it’s been occurring more frequently. Some may see it as a sign of a late developing tic; I see it as a sign I’m bettering my reading and gaining more confidence in my thought. And I found it ironic I uttered these phrases at an author who evolved my non-fiction reading. And no, this isn’t the platitude “kill your mentors!!!” While that platitude has truth to it, it bears little relevance to what I’m going to discuss. I’m going to discuss my reading evolution, and an author and his two works.
The author in the hot seat, Alan Jacobs. His Pleasures of Reading in An Age of Distraction inspired an evolution with my reading style. He unmoored me from constraints habituated in my non-fiction reading.
But before I get into that, here’s a mini-memoir — very mini, I’ll leave the childhood part for another day, and other parts — of my reading evolution.
When I first got into online marketing around 2010, I full-on drank the Kool-Aid. In reality, I converted into a full on Born Again Success parishioner. When I first stepped inside the Cathedral of Success, like many, I thought I found the holy grail. I sanctimoniously and naively believed I found a way to optimize myself into becoming a supreme self, personally and professionally. I cast to the wind my previous success in the car business, and all that previous experience, and stored all my faith in this new Success religion.1 With that, I forsook my lifelong reading style. A style fostered by my grandparents and later sharpened by great English and History teachers. All that dropped in favor of reading books in the Success manner.
I at first tried the speed reading methods in fashion circa 2010. Yet I noticed, when I tried the methods to dissect a sales letter or read a copy great like David Ogilvy, I retained nothing. So, quietly, as to not offend the Tim Ferriss worshippers I worked with,2 I used my old reading style when I read sales letters and copywriting books.
Yet the apostate in me researched speed reading and stumbled into the near infinite amount of research showing how bunk it was. I at first thought, these researchers are haters with emotional issues — as is the standard Success retort when dealing with facts. Yet I tried another Success reading method, since those irksome, hater truths bugged me. Quietly, I glided into the standard Success reading method hailed by many gurus; a method no different from the reading methods — or habits, as I see them — we learned in school, even though gurus rail against how we learned to read in school. But what school taught us lacked sexy names like “second brain.” The reading method? It’s a form of “hunting the key lessons.” You hunt lessons under the hope of either extracting applicable and beneficial lessons, or remembering what you read, and often both. I owned a burning desire to optimize reading to optimize my personal self, to optimize my professional self, to optimize my life to live as an optimized person living an optimized life. Yes, optimized manic. And I tried manic applications like listening to a book on audiobook while simultaneously reading the book. I tried anxiety inducing applications like listening to books at 3x speed as soon as I woke up. I tried the trying note-taking methods — brain clouds, the clouds, notification reminders, second brain methods, Dan Kennedy’s surface the card in the deck method, Kindle notes, Richard Feynman techniques, memory castle methods, Anki flashcard quizzes, and so on and so forth — with each book I read.
During this manic period, I stumbled across Ryan Holiday. As much as it begrudges me, I must give Holiday credit. He pointed me towards better books. Rather, he pointed at real books versus the standard “tell me what I already know about Success” junk food I inhaled. I tried Holiday’s commonplace book method, yet his Lifehacker dogma combined with my previous Success methods, and not questioning what the hell I was doing, my reading comprehension hit new lows. I read books, like Willam Manchester’s brilliant biography of Winston Churchill, and stuffed that brilliant biography into the Success vision. I took fortune-cookie style notes, “Winston Churchill ignored the critics!” Or I’d write trite business lessons, “Churchill focused on persuading the big idea and not educating!” I hunted sentences resembling platitudes proffered in Success fare. I turned Manchester’s brilliant biography into vulgarized Seth Godin fare. No matter what the author wrote, no matter the argument, I stuffed it into the Success vision I wanted to see, and was taught to see. I made each book tell me formulaic Success lessons regardless of what the book detailed. And when figures like Cal Newport or Scott Young surfaced, my reading method sunk to extreme lows.3 I believed I could hack intellectual depth along with the Success lessons. That whole “optimized” thing.
It all came to a halt.
I felt lost. When I left my part of online marketing, I never imagined or predicted the catharsis I would undergo. I had spent seven or so years optimizing myself into the image of what Success sold me. And a lot of that optimization fell under the Success ideology of requiring mentors and paying to learn. I didn’t realize how I continually subjugated to a “mentor,” thus hurling me into a constant cycle of underselling myself.4 As I ran on the hamster wheel of optimizing myself as an individual, I unknowingly hollowed out my agency to fit the image created by Success lessons. I remember looking at my bookshelf in 2017, and admitting, I had no clue what I had read. I injected what I thought I was supposed to see inside each book. Each book became a means to an end determined by fashionable Success ideologies. I went through all my commonplace notes, all my cloud notes, and confronted a sobering truth — all that busy work, adhering to the approved methods, proved shallow, superficial, and pointless. I threw it all out.
The universe owns a wry knack for tapping you on the shoulder. Around when I started writing for my site — another cathartic experience, I spent nearly two years learning how to write as me before I launched — I came across How To Read A Book by Mortimer Adler. I read it. I took a leap of faith and tried his method. It felt illicit at first. Adler advised for your first time reading a book, to read it without stopping at all. No notes. No looking things up. Only on a reread — what he calls “analytical” — did he say to take notes. He advised, as you read, to work to leave the book on the same intellectual footing as the author. He taught me to ask those impossibly simple but impossibly big questions demanding granular answers. I knew I was onto something. I felt like I stood at a portal. And if I stepped through that portal, on the other side, I’d find the rooted me.
I’d like to say it worked as fast as stepping through a portal, but it didn’t.
My first time trying Adler’s method, it felt like I was wrong. I wondered if I was doing it wrong. I fretted I would retain nothing by not taking Richard Feynman notes and then quizzing myself with Anki. Yet I stuck to it.
I asked and answered the questions he recommended. Initially, I felt like an idiot. I felt shame. Why? I struggled to answer the questions he recommended in a granular, non-platitude way. The sobering struggle: answering as me, answering critically, and not answering with the approved Success maxims. I called myself out on the platitudes. I called myself out when I answered with a superficial chestnut. But as I followed Adler’s method, the cobwebs in my mind which had developed after years of inoculating myself from critical thinking shook off with each book I read. I found footing. I felt unburdened. And I felt something I hadn’t felt in a long time, secure in evolving Adler’s method into what felt natural to me.
And off I went, from around 2018 until 2022. The method evolved. I altered a few of the questions Adler asked. Instead of using his fiction method, which I found too rushed and empty of enjoyment, I chose Francine Prose’s method for fiction.
But the last year or so, I felt off in my non-fiction reading. I felt I read too fast. Sensing this, I worked on slowing down. I went from reading around one hundred books or more in a year to around seventy, give or take (and it’s less now). But I was still inhaling books, it felt like rushed conversations. Questions surfaced as I read, even critiques and arguments, but I plowed through to adhere to my method. It felt unnatural.
In 2022, I read Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs. And the book was the needed elixir for my reading. He inspired the “swim upstream” method I’ve mentioned.5 He inspired me to slow down, and to do something I only did during a reread, marginalia. I followed Jacob’s advice to ask questions with my marginalia. At first, I sparsely asked. But I removed the constraints. I began asking and writing marginalia as if I were doing an analytical read. I worked to keep my marginalia in line with my belief that reading is an intimate conversation. I wrote observations; I wrote random thoughts. I took my time conversing versus plowing through. Doing this injected steroids into my critical thinking and reading comprehension. More importantly, I started having more fun. I conversed deeper with each book. Weirdly, I dropped more “ums” from my day-to-day speaking. And it helped me find and enjoy a confidence in my writing. Those particular influences sparked an excitement to read Jacobs’ other book on reading, The Pleasures of Breaking Bread with the Dead.
We return to my moment at the airport.
Jacobs kicked his book off with a bang. He detailed the shallowness plaguing the current state of reading. Readers today tend to pick superficial books, read those books superficially, and do both as a scramble to stay fashionable. Another plague, certain populations force classics through the lens of their preferred pet theory, or through a lens of shallowness. For instance, the bastardization of Stoicism. Stoicism has been bastardized into a secular humanism by Stoic popularizers like Massimo Pigliucci. It’s been bastardized into various and bizarre meanings by the Manosphere crowd. It’s been bastardized by the trite Tim Ferriss and Ryan Holiday types. And it’s been bastardized by various other groups and beliefs. Jacobs says it’s a result of us being taught or led to believe classics confirm our current vision. Tie that to how we superficially read, we’re taught not to meet the book as ourselves, but rather extract the “lessons” or extract “the vision.” I see it as, we’re taught not to read the book, rather, we’re taught to make the book say whatever fashionable thing we want it to say.
A basic myth Jacobs shatters: classics have nothing to offer us. Most voracious readers know the power and beauty of the classics, but not many voracious readers exist. Most people believe the classics equate the boring stuff we were forced to read in high school. Hence the trope, “School/teachers made me hate reading!” We forget that we were teens, and for some of us, we hated homework, and often reading was assigned as homework.6 Another side of this myth Jacobs shatters, the belief that old books are not useful in today’s world. That we believe we are somehow more advanced, hipper, smarter, or better than what preceded us. Jacobs shows the dangers of reading under this guise.
Shallowness is another issue pervading reading. We read to “finish a list” by a certain time frame. Or we read certain books hoping it moves the needle for us personally or professionally. We sap enjoyment, sap depth, and treat books as a cheap grab bag of lessons. This, as Jacobs details, is done under the hope of not missing out, and a belief it will help us predict the future. And airport best sellers meet this “I want to win the future” desire.
Jacobs first hit the issues with modern reading. My marginalia poured out around reading and Success. Then he took a turn. He went from a strong premise into acquiescing to Oberlin College gender study grads. He wasn’t as bad as other authors I’ve read. Jacobs wields strong writing skills. But he’d make a strong point or opening argument, like reading Frederick Douglass to have uncomfortable conversations on race, but then, in the next paragraph, Jacobs dyed his hair purple and said he couldn’t find the strength like Douglass to thank America’s Founding Fathers since he finds America as an awful and oppressive place. Then in the next chapter, he wrote about a woman who recently lived in America and enjoyed all the wonderful freedoms available in America, but her family made her go back to her home country, and there, she was stripped of all her freedoms due to her religious beliefs and sent to prison where she was raped and tortured, repeatedly. And he implies how grateful he is for the freedoms he enjoys, though he can’t get himself to say he’s glad to live in America.
Jacobs kept going back and forth like that. But what made me blurt vulgarities at Denver International airport were his chapters on how women could approach oppressive, patriarchal Victorian literature, like Charles Dickens. When he detailed Dickens, he self-flagellated first for being a man, but hoped he could do his part to help women read literature from misogynistic white men who kept feeding a society designed to keep women down.
My marginalia was along the lines of: I’m sure all the womxn are happy you’re helping to bring down the system, Alan. I can’t believe you’re betraying the cabal of white males that have met every Tuesday at 6 pm since we took power all those thousands of years ago, to instead help womxn read our womxn-hating, brother-in-misogynistic and racist arms, Charles “I put the ‘i’ in misogyny” Dickens without getting offended. Your courage is an inspiration, I promise not to tell the others.
I lied. It wasn’t that snarky. The marginalia asked why isn’t he addressing how sensitive readers have become. And I had plenty of marginalia pressing on Jacobs and his lopsided vision. Ok, yes, there was some snarky marginalia. It accused Jacobs of spending too much time in the faculty lounge.
I blurted a “come the fuck on, are you fucking kidding me!?” after takeoff, startling the gentleman next to me. What got the rise, Jacobs treated the famous letters of almost star-crossed lovers, Dorothy Osborne and William Temple along fourth-wave feminist lines. Dorothy Osborne lived in the 1600s. She chose her husband, William Temple. She knew he was her guy. She ignored suitors for years on end, even facing the reality of not ending up with William, yet they ended up together. While it’s impossible to psychoanalyze her letters — and it would be easy to fall into the lazy trap and pop-psychoanalyze her as needy — her letters display a feminine strength and confidence. She isn’t “needy” or “cray.” There is something else; a patience, a reserve, a sense of profound love, a sense of even if she doesn’t get her William, she’s at peace knowing she told him her truth. And that truth comes, at least in my small knowledge of her letters, from her knowing her values and knowing her worth. 7 It’s beautiful. It’s endearing. That Jacobs struggles with. He struggles with how she could ever embrace traditional feminine roles. He struggles with how she lambasts the feminists of her time. Dorothy isn’t in the mold of what Jacobs and his feminist academic colleagues tell us what women should be, instead, Dorothy is independent, strong-willed, submissive (in the feminine role sense, not the modern bastardization sense where it implies some Handmaiden’s Tale dystopia where women have no thought or agency), and full of traditional, feminine grace. He then tries laboriously to rectify Dorothy to his modern world. He writes how women can learn from her independence to empower themselves in the modern workforce; and how women can ignore Dorothy’s “backward” and “regressive” qualities like traditional, Victorian feminine values; and how to look past her love and adoration for a masculine man, a man where at times it’s uncertain she will be with; and how a modern woman can find strength in Dorothy’s independence, yet that “strength,” as Jacobs implicitly asserts, must be forced into current fourth-wave feminist theories on female empowerment. This inspired my salted outbursts.
That’s how my back-and-forth went with Jacobs. But I noticed my marginalia, my critical thinking, my arguments stood on reason. Yes, I got colorful at the airport. I got colorful on the plane (fortunately, the gentleman next to me ended up zonking out). I pressed back where Jacobs was stuck inside postmodernist frameworks and reasoned why approaching books in that manner works similar to when people read old books to fit their desired vision. I pointed out where he contradicted himself, pointed out where he said presentism is an issue with reading, but then he used a presentist argument to force characters or figures or stories into the current progressive standards. I noted how he’s missing the bigger question: why are readers so sensitive when reading old books? Better yet, maybe readers are trained to be sensitive, due to Jacobs’ academic colleagues and media publishing outlets now repudiating our inherited Western canon. Why isn’t he asking about that? It’s here where I got colorful. It’s here where I cussed at the airport. But when I finished the book somewhere over eastern Colorado, I flipped through the pages. I looked at my marginalia. And I thanked Jacobs. I thanked Adler.
I saw my reading evolution. I saw the conversation. And while I disagreed, often colorfully, with Jacobs, I saw how I pressed back with granularity. I injected clarity into the disagreements. I felt, or noticed, rather, I’ve come into my own with reading. I’m not a reading maestro by any means. My reading evolves and will continue to evolve. But I see and now know the power of conversing with a book versus seeking lessons or “trying to remember” the book via second-brain notes or other cool-sounding tactics. And conversing with a book led me to find a footing with myself, bolstering confidence with my critical thinking, taste, and ideas.
I fear we live in a post-literate society. We know reading offers us benefits. But we’re somewhat ingrained to “seek the lessons” or to “remember the book.” As for the latter, it’s superficial. It’s a cheap method to feel accomplished. To the former, we’re doing what a guru or Success ideology tells us to do, while excluding ourselves from what we read. Both are well-intentioned, and both are directionally right. But we look at books as a “world of life-changing ideas” and we leave it at that. We fantasize about downloading the ideas and applying those ideas. We don’t question, chat, reflect, debate, expand; we don’t bring ourselves, faults, opinions, experiences, or our current selves to the table. We instead falsely hope the book brings us closer to our “optimized” future self.
It’s vulnerable to converse with an author.8 It’s daunting, as Adler teaches us, to work to leave the book on the same intellectual footing as the author. We can’t hide behind false pretenses. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know when a topic flies over our heads. We’re not told, or we forget, that when an author flies over our heads, we can slow it down and ask questions. We can spend time with a passage, dissect the words, use a dictionary, talk through it with ourselves, look up a reference, say it aloud, and do what we wish to grasp the passage. And after some dissection, we may intuit the author is full of bull or he’s unclear, or who knows what else. Yet, despite gurus proselytizing individuality, questioning or criticizing is taken as an unforgivable sin. If you criticize or call something bad or question what’s called bad, you’re taught that you’re projecting your deep psychological issues. In other words, questioning reveals some abhorrent psychological state. It’s a bizarre belief and borders on a totalistic line of thinking. But the belief pervades Success, and, I believe, it’s snuck unconsciously into how people treat reading. It’s unfortunate. One of the best ways to learn, and even remember something, is to engage with it, if or when possible, Socratically. That requires pressing back, or asking the simple, “what do you mean?” And the beauty with a book, you can take however long you want with a question. You can also converse with the author about how their point relates to your profession, life, mission, or whatever else comes to mind. This, I believe, cements what you retain from a book far better than trying Lifehacker tips to “remember” the book as if you’re cramming for a final exam. It makes you engage in a world of ideas, and on the level with the writers, rather than trying to cram for an exam you’ll forget about in a few weeks.
Some books you’ll dislike instantly, toss them away. I toss some books into the trash, literally. I’m not imploring you to finish every book. But I am saying, when you deepen your conversation with books, you will come across books you strongly disagree with, but, for some reason, you keep reading it. Perhaps you’re a fan of the author, or perhaps it’s a book wielding enormous influence over Western thought, or who knows what else, but you keep reading despite your strong disagreements. What I find distinct, if you find yourself reading a book you disagree with, you enter into a debate. And it’s possible, during this debate, you’ll stumble across areas where you’re sturdy with your convictions but flimsy with your reasons. This forces your hand, it forces sharper thinking; it forces you to plant your feet on the ground versus standing on stilts.
Note, I’m not imploring you to read “the other side!” I find that a manipulative phrase uttered by those who can’t counter your opinions with any merit, so they hope you endure books you’d find shitty. For instance, I’m not going to self-flagellate and endure Noam Chomsky’s emotional bullshit, so I can say to the self-righteous, “See! I read the other side!” Instead, I’m imploring to let your curiosity take you wherever you want. Doing so, however, you will come across a book you disagree with (and more than one). If want to keep reading it and wish to make it worth your time — then make it worth your time and engage with rigor.
To come back to Jacobs and to finish, Breaking Bread With The Dead was a letdown with a few highlights. The core highlight, Jacobs exposed certain problems permeating modern reading. He also does a decent job, sprinkled throughout the book, showing how to meet and engage with great works. Jacobs opens doors to reading taste, and how to make tough books readable. Yet when he returned to the faculty lounge, he lost me. He bowed to an ideology, and it contradicted his arguments. Regardless of the book being a major letdown, I enjoyed my conversation with Jacobs. And it was fun to enjoy a rigorous debate with an author who enriched my reading. I believe that’s how good reading works. Good reading goes beyond remembering; good reading deepens enjoyment; good reading sharpens thinking; good reading makes a conversation with a book and its author memorable.
- A lot of this cast aside, I believe, had to do with a professional and personal limbo of sorts. The professional limbo, my whole life I believed, and got the message from everyone but my dad and grandfather, that I was going to take over the Clair Motors empire. I told my dad I wanted to do it. But after his first cancer scare, he told me he was selling the business. My world turned upside down. When he told me, I went despondent, to be frank. Then initially, he had planned to move me, and his top guys, to the Boise and Twin Falls, Idaho areas, for Toyota. But his cancer came back. I was with him when he told the Toyota execs in Honolulu, Hawaii, that he is going to die soon, and best to find someone else for their plans. I moved to Colorado to spread my own wings, yet not having dealt with the sale of Clair Motors, and my dad’s death was horrific at the end, I had created an unhealthy internal battle in my head for the Clair Legacy. And I naively believed I could beat the combined money mark of my grandfather and father with my “optimized self’ and via copy. This put a set of blinders on me. Sure, I succeeded, but it further moved me away from finding my own footing. And fortunately, reading helped to yank me out of that silly, scrambling battle. ↩
- I’m semi-serious here. When I started working at Tao of Badass, we shared an office with another top Clickbank Affiliate company. I can’t recall the company, it was a health company. But the office was an old house in Denver. Both companies raved about Tim Ferriss. One guy was trying the bizarre sleep method. But it created tension, people kept trying his methods to not show up to meetings, and this created blow up screaming matches. Like I’ve said, Internet Marketing is a strange place. ↩
- This is not a knock on Newport or Young. I think Young offers some good nuggets on learning. And the two of them do offer some good courses when they pair up. ↩
- It was also a mind-bender when I knew, I was smarter and ten times more successful than the mentor. No, this isn’t a flex, rather, I was unaware of what I brought to the table: my values, experience, and wisdom. But I kept buying into the message that I needed to pay to get these people near me. And needed to be the “student” at all times. ↩
- https://jimclair.com/i-swam-with-adam-smith/ ↩
- I’m the rare kid who loved reading in high school. At my boarding school, The Governor’s Academy, we had a gorgeous library. I went to the library all the time to read. My issue, I wanted to read books and not textbooks. Plenty of times I cursed the reading assignments because I was reading something else and not what I was supposed to. ↩
- I have not read all the letters, only a smattering. I might be misspoken, but what I have read is beautiful, touching, and sentimental. She strikes real romance, not fairy tale romance. ↩
- The same can be said of fiction. While reading fiction works a little differently, if you slow it down, and reflect, fiction can also bring to life various emotions, reflections, and thoughts. With some fiction you feel as if you exist in the story. With others, it may take you to different places. For instance, in the summer of 2022, I read The Growth of The Soil by Knut Hamsun. And it surfaced someone special to me, so much so, I felt that person’s physical presence next to me as I read it. Whether reading it on my balcony or while waiting for my truck to be washed, I felt that person there. And I savored it. I savored it as if they were there. And it’s become a memory I now cherish. That wouldn’t have happened if I had plowed through. Or if I had read it to “see the structure!” or some such shallow lesson. ↩