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Niall Ferguson on reading, remembering and shared culture

Two kinds of reading

Niall Ferguson: I think there are two kinds of reading. When one’s reading for work, when one has to grapple with a great pile of books… I’m certainly not going to read faithfully each of the pages of those books but I am going to try and work out what each of those books is saying.

But then reading for pleasure is a different matter, and I’ve hardly ever given up a book that I’ve embarked from as a read for pleasure. I gave up on Children of the New Forest by Captain Marryat when I was about twelve and I remember an enormous, keen sense of sin – it was the only book I didn’t finish as a boy. So I’m not one for tossing books aside lightly, and I’m quite a tenacious reader…


Joe Walker: Do you ever re-read books?

Niall Ferguson: There are some books that I’ve read multiple times… There are the books I’ve read to all my children, so there are plenty of those including the Harry Potter books. The best of all the books I’ve ever read to a child is still Tolkien’s The Hobbit, an extraordinary book that benefits from being read aloud. So I’ve read the Hobbit five times at least, six if you count the time I read it as a boy… I certainly read The Lord of the Rings several times when I was young. I was a devoted Tolkein reader, to my mother’s great disappointment.

The book that I’ve read multiple times in later life is Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which is another of the reasons that I became a historian, and that’s a book that repays multiple readings.

Reading, forgetting and selective memory

I probably don’t have a wonderfully good memory… and I’m always slightly shocked at how little I’ve retained and therefore how fresh the books seems.

I think this is a disadvantage in one respect, because in a way a historian needs to have a really good memory and have a lot of raw data sort of floating around accessibly. On the other hand I think if one remembered too much of each book, there might be a problem of cluttering. I have always said to students, “Trust your brain to be selective without too much coercion. It’ll remember the things that are memorable, and that probably will be enough.”


Teaching people, for many years at Oxford and Harvard especially, how to read was a part of what I did, and I would see them – there’s a particular kind of student – taking incredibly detailed notes, but proceeding at a snail’s pace, whereas it’s much better to have read all the books on the list, even if you had to read them quite fast. And my advice to people who would get bogged down in reading was don’t worry about taking such detailed notes. Read it, and then write down the things that are memorable, and that way you can be much more efficient. And your brain will forget the boring parts.

So rather than be like Tyler [Cowen] and throw the book aside, keep going, because there’s probably a couple of nuggets between where you are and the end of the book. You’ll spot them.

Reading fitness in a distracted age

People are sort of unfit about their reading. They don’t read in a way that they would accept in their own physical fitness. So I’m always trying to encourage young people to think of their brains as these slightly out of shape bodies that they can train up to be much faster and much quicker. And you’ve got to let the brain do what it’s good at, which is ultimately at forgetting the boring stuff. That’s actually important.

Joe Walker: … And the other thing is, reading compounds, and the more you do it the easier it becomes because you start to recognise references, you get quicker just by building that muscle.

Niall Ferguson: And unfortunately, today’s young people are distracted by any number of devices – and now I really do sound like I’m 57, but in fact it’s a tremendous problem because they lose the ability to read War and Peace. I noticed at Harvard over the 12 years that each year when I asked “Who’s read War and Peace?” the number of people in the class would be smaller, until finally nobody had. And I’m not sure that it’s possible to have the power – the physical mental fitness – to read War and Peace if you’ve spent too long gaming.

So the game world is gradually eating the book world, and that’s sad because in the great works of literature, that’s where the wisdom is. It’s all there. And if we lose the ability to get young people to read Tolstoy then our civilisation will basically start to be deleted, and that’s a great preoccupation.

Compounding benefits of reading

You’ve got to get that reading speed up early, and then you just have to read and read and read. And it is cumulative, not only in the sense that you get better at reading, but in a fascinating way the knowledge that you imbibe from books is cumulative. History is very much a data processing activity. And you should get better at being a historian over time, whereas you get worse at being a mathematician over time because a mathematician just has to have that early, very rapid processing power… whereas the historian gets better until the memory starts to go because there’s just this accumulation of references.

My old mentor, Norman Stone – a brilliant and wayward man – had read such a phenomenal amount of european literature in multiple languages… that it felt when you had a conversation with Norman as if a library had sort of found its way into a somebody’s head and was talking to you…

Cultural atrophy

That’s the thing that really begins to be lost at this point. I just don’t know what percentage of what I’d read, at the age of let’s say, twenty-seven, my eldest has read. And I don’t suppose it’s fair to guess, but it’s probably pretty small. And I’d say that even the best students at Harvard and Stanford must be a long long way behind.

And that means that you appear to be speaking the same language to people in a different generation, but in fact a lot of what you’re saying is not intelligible in the way that you think it is because the allusions are completely lost…

On (avoiding) reading lists and finding great authors

Joe Walker: For people interested in reading some of these literary landmarks, would you recommend them making their way through Harold Bloom’s list in The Western Canon, or do you think there’s a better or more limited list?

Niall Ferguson: I think you should find a good library and just follow your nose. I think all these lists are strangely deadening, and I hate lists. I think it’s a sign of a petty mind to think you could boil it down to a hundred books.

So don’t even look at that wretched list. Go to the library as I did as a boy and just follow your nose, and find the authors. And then when you find one that connects, read it all. I remember having that experience as a teenager with the great Russian writers of the nineteenth century. I couldn’t believe it when I’d run out of Dostoyevsky, and I felt the same way when I’d run out of Dickens.

So I’m of the view that you should not think of great books, but great authors. And once you find a great author, why would just read one book? Read them all.

Libraries and the pleasure of reading

Libraries are very important in that respect… because of the way that books are ordered in a library, rather differently from the way they’re ordered on Google – you will, as intended by the people who catalogue libraries, find kindred books, and you can then spend happy hours dipping in and finding your way around the author, seeing who grabs you and who does not.

And then you don’t have this sense of, “Ah, I’m on number 19, I’m nearly a quarter of the way through the list.” You should never feel that you’re even one percent of the way through the list.

Niall Ferguson on The Jolly Swagman Podcast

See also:

See also:

Writing and Reading as Technology Series

Writing and Reading as Technology (1): Transforming Fire; Slow Burn
Writing and Reading as Technology (2): Half-baked Beginnings
Writing and Reading as Technology (3): Marginal Revolutions
Writing and Reading as Technology (4): Innovation at Play; or, A Loaded Pun
Writing and Reading as Technology (5): Literacy as Infrastructure for Thought
Writing and Reading as Technology (6): Stop Press. Who invented moveable type?
Writing and Reading as Technology (7): History’s First Mass Literacy Campaign?
Writing and Reading as Technology (8): Augmenting Reality
Writing and Reading (and visual art) as Technology (9): Virtual Realities
Writing and Reading as Technology (10): Elizabeth Eisenstein on the Printing Press and the End of the Information Famine
Writing and Reading as Technology (11): Writing Rules
Writing and Reading as Technology (12): Elizabeth Eisenstein on How the Printing Press Changed Books

Writing and Reading as Technology (13): Erik Engheim on Gutenberg vs earlier Asian printing technologies
Writing and Reading as Technology (14): Magical Paper Sizes; or, The Golden Non-Ratio
Writing and Reading as Technology (15): videos on the evolution of the alphabet and the spread of writing

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