For the past few weeks on the blog, I’ve been discussing the importance of reading challenging texts. “Challenging” covers a broad range of books — it can mean books you hate, books you don’t enjoy, books that you are ideologically opposed to, or books that are worth reading but hard to get through.
All this aspirational talk about reading challenging books doesn’t really help us get started, though. It’s easy to say that reading is good for us. It’s more challenging to sit down and actually start reading, especially when Netflix or Instagram are within reach. I’ve been thinking about this difficulty myself lately as I’ve been getting up the gumption to finally read Paradise Lost by John Milton.
In his book, The Seeker’s Guide to the Secret Teachings of All Ages, occult scholar Mitch Horowitz offers some wisdom on how to approach some of the most challenging books I’ve ever encountered: classic occult texts.
I often encourage people to take an undaunted approach to works of esoteric or occult wisdom, works that too often develop a reputation for being “unreadable.” Some people say that Madame H.P. Blavatsky’s two-volume cosmological epic The Secret Doctrine (1888) is unreadable. It is not unreadable. If you can turn the pages, or press an arrow button on a screen, you can read it. Just keep doing that. G.I. Gurdjieff’s magisterial allegory, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson (1950) is complex and jarringly—as well as intentionally—unfamiliar. It is intended to disrupt rote thought. But, again, it is not unreadable. It’s like a journey; you put one foot in front of the other and you keep turning the pages. When people claim that these books are unreadable—or that they conceal themselves from the reader—it is often a tipoff that they haven’t attempted to read them.
I think Horowitz is speaking directly to the performance anxiety many of us feel when confronted with a difficult book. What if I miss something important? What if I don’t grasp it?
I have to remind myself that reading a book of my own volition isn’t a proficiency exam. It isn’t the SAT. Instead, I can see reading not as a performance, but as a journey. I will inevitably misunderstand, miss context, and fail to grasp certain things. That’s ok. I don’t need to understand it. I just need to keep turning the pages.
And then, with time, the meaning of the book comes into focus. The shape becomes clearer, and the nuances become more defined. If I’m not willing to read hard books imperfectly, then I will never read.