On Reading and Writing: Motives Behind the Words


My books are patient. The wait for me to read them. They can’t be aware I take them seriously, but I do.  They are “the chosen,” whether purchased or on loan. I imagine you might hold the same attitude toward reading. You are reading at this moment. Finer things to read exist, but since I tend to write about serious matters, I’m guessing you must be a person of substance who, at least some of the time, reads books worthy of being read.

What I said is presumptuous. By “worthy of being read,” I mean they offer value ranging from amusement to knowledge to a different slant on life to a profound emotional experience. A book not worthy of reading, from my perspective, would teach you to fashion a homemade nuke or corrode your soul or quickly be forgotten.

The book obviously doesn’t care how fast you read. The author is grateful regardless of how much time you take. Nor must you absorb many books to be a “serious” reader. Rather, you approach the task of reading with a sense of responsibility to the author and yourself. He or she took time and you give yours. You suspend uncertainty whether the work will reward your effort. Indeed, many serious readers turn the pages more slowly than those who are less attentive to the words, their subtleties of expression and meaning; the way the syllables lead from one to the next, how they sound spoken aloud, their cleverness and beauty or blunt force.

I have read a few books more than once, both close in time and decades apart. The truth of the saying, “Too many books, too little time,” begs the question, why might I repeat myself? Sometimes I’ve done so to master a difficult text or to remind myself of important ideas, often to learn more deeply. The latter statement refers to non-fiction and fiction, prose and poetry. I was on my third time through The Iliad and The Odyssey when these poems opened themselves to me (and me to them) thanks to wonderful teachers leading discussions with intelligent classmates.

Books are dangerous. People ban them or burn them. German poet Heinrich Heine wrote in 1821, “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people,” as they did in his homeland over a century later. Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel, Fahrenheit 451, takes place in a society in which books have been forbidden and “firemen” search them out and set them aflame. The title refers to the approximate auto-ignition point of paper. Until the mid-twentieth century the Catholic Church discouraged independent Bible reading by congregants. The Scripture was interpreted for them by clerics. Free thinking (and reading) is not encouraged by any group authorizing only a single understanding of a text, whether religious or secular. In parts of today’s USA, some look at you askance if you peruse the The New York Times.

Books can change the past, quite a neat trick. By saying so, I mean our personal past or the historical past can be reinterpreted because of a book. Psychotherapy is often about reframing the past and then changing oneself in the present due to a new perspective. Indeed, your interpretation of your personal history ought to shift in any life, partly because of a changing vantage point as you age and life experiences that alter you. You are no longer the same individual. A book alone can be enough. As Kafka wrote, “A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.”

Writing and reading are friendly enemies. To write well you must read good writing. But you must also do the writing. The two activities compete for your time.

Conventional wisdom tells us we write out of inner necessity. This is not always true. University professors are expected to write to win tenure and spread their work within the community of scholars. They, in turn, are expected to immerse themselves in the important contributions to the field. Thus, in the domain of scholarship, any worthy writing also creates an external necessity for other scholars, who are soon required to read the essential thought of colleagues.

Numerous serious wordsmiths try to prove something, to draw attention and approbation for their point of view. This can be simple grandiosity, but not when the author is motivated by the search for truth or a wish to improve the world. Most write for today, a few for an imagined posterity.


Reading has multiple motivations, as well. The classics must be read if you wish to be an “educated person,” at least in the classical sense. Thus, Plato, for example, can’t be ignored. We were all required to read in school, often things we found distasteful or difficult. All of us read as part of making our living, even if it is a book of instructions on how to run a machine. And there are readers who read out of inner necessity, as was the case of a friend whose father died early, and promised himself to become a physician so that he might prevent deaths in others.

Writing and reading can be both compelling and compelled, driven — as if time is running out — which, of course, is always true. Paging our way through a volume can also be a distraction, a way to get lost or sheltered from the outside world. Reading is a simple pleasure, too, or a method of transporting yourself to another place and time without moving from your chair. In this sense it is akin to travel and can open new worlds to inspection.

Essays and short stories, but more often books, can feel quite personal. The author seems to have written for you in particular, not you as a random, unknown bookworm. Of course, rarely is a title inscribed with you as an identified target. Readers are usually wanted, but, unless you are a scholar or, say, a music critic, you don’t always aim at a particular audience. You are grateful for any audience at all.

Once you put ink to paper, however, things can change. If a line of followers forms, even a short one, a fractional part will communicate with you. You acquire a bit of knowledge of a few such people by virtue of their comments as well as the way they turn a phrase. If you give public readings or friends read your words, you also get to hear some of their reactions. Inevitably, your writing becomes more personal (assuming it is not scholarly work) and you begin to scribble with a particular, less anonymous group in mind. So, in a sense, dear readers, I am writing for some of you, not just a generalized you.

One exception to this is the diarist, who writes things designed never to be read by anyone other than himself or herself. The page becomes not only the surface upon which an individual places the words, but the only external “audience” for the words (if one can say that about paper).

In any writing worth doing, you are going to read and reread so many times in the process of composing and editing that you are a more attentive audience than almost anyone else who encounters your creation.


I am always a little mystified when people finish books about truth and beauty, find them engaging, and go forth living their lives as if unaware of either one. Put differently, books can be transformative and enlightening, but come with no guarantee. The old joke about therapy applies here:

How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?

One. But the light bulb has to want to be changed.

The creation of a book takes a lot of work, something of an understatement. By comparison, generating these blog posts is easy. People can spend a decade or more writing a single book. Their dedication, obligation, or compulsivity is quite extraordinary. I wrote a novel (unpublished) 34 years ago. I finished the same night my first child was born. Two births within 24 hours, the human one by far the more rewarding and wonderful. That said, the novel proved a therapeutic task, working out some remaining issues from my childhood, so it was not in vain. I can tell you, however, that sending chapters around (ultimately) to be rejected by all who took a look was a punishing task. After a year of this I rendered my own verdict on the process and the product and decided I wasn’t the author of the “Great American Novel.”

I once thought of compiling the dozens of oral histories I’ve completed of Chicago Symphony members into a book. The then-President of the CSO was on board with the project. I found, however, I took more joy in doing the interviews than in the idea of transcribing and editing them. Nor did I want the obligation of having to create the work, which I would have acquired if a publisher gave advanced approval. Once you must do a thing, it can turn an action done for pleasure into an oppressive weight on part of your body. For myself at least, weight-lifting is exercise I do twice a week in my basement with barbells and dumbbells, not the heavy effort of fashioning a scripted tome. Thus, the recorded oral histories live in the CSO Archives, and on occasion are excerpted in the books of others. You can find a few quotes from them in my essays.

I began writing these posts for two reasons. The foremost was to offer something of myself to my children, something they could choose to consult either while I was around or at some future time when I wouldn’t be around. And, as you probably guessed, I wrote out of inner necessity, as I did in other formats at earlier times in my life (especially for publication, about music and baseball). Ironically, I did more composing of psychological reports than any other type, but while this was satisfying it was also part of my vocation as a psychologist. Therefore, much was done out of external necessity, as well as the gratification obtained in the act of understand and communicating the results of my psychological examinations. Now, however, I write for a larger audience, some of whom I’ve come to know a little or a lot. I am happy to hear, from time to time, that the blog does good for people who read my words and spread my scribbles.

Finally, a couple of good quotes about books:

“The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.” (Oscar Wilde)

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” (Groucho Marx)

The first photo is my wife, Aleta, taken in college by an anonymous admirer. It arrived in her mail box without identification. A Child Reading by Candlelight is the work of Richard Peter for Deutsche Fotothek. Ghandi Writing (1942) comes from Ghandiserv.org/ The last two images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.


A Few Good Books

You won’t be looking at this unless you are a reader. So here are a few brief recommendations of books that have made a lasting impression on me. Most are not new and I suspect that some are out of print, but are likely to be obtainable by a search on the Internet. In no particular order:

1. Frauen by Allison Owings. Owings comes as close as anyone to answering the question, “How did the Holocaust Happen.” An American journalist who studied in Germany, she returned there to interview mostly gentile women who had lived through the period of the Third Reich. Owings summary does an extraordinary job of describing the psychology of the bystanding German population.

2.  A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. Irving gives away the plot of his novel early on: Owen Meany will die an unusual death. But rather than destroying the tension of the book, this puts the reader in Owen’s shoes as a man who knows that he will come to an untimely end, but doesn’t know exactly how. As the book progresses and that end comes closer, the terror is almost unbearable.

3.  Agitato by Jerome Toobin. The story of Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra in the one decade that it attempted to survive after his retirement. If you enjoy anecdotes about famous musicians, this book is for you. The tale Toobin tells is both funny and sad, since the orchestra did not last. Jerome Toobin, by the way, is the father of Jeffrey Toobin, the legal scholar and public intellectual.

4.  Regret: the Persistence of the Possible by Janet Landman. A book about the title emotion, viewed from literary, psychological, and other perspectives.

5.  What is the Good Life? by Luc Ferry. A very good attempt to answer the biggest question of all: what is the meaning of life?

6.  The Long Walk by Slavomir Ramicz. The author tells the true story of his escape from a Siberian prison camp. He and his compatriots, with almost no equipment, food, or appropriate clothing, attempted to walk to freedom and Western Civilization, which took them as far as India. As you can imagine, not all of them made it. That anyone at all did is astonishing.

7.  Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. This story of an unhappily married Russian woman touches on almost all that is important in life: love, friendship, obligation, children, religion, the value (or lack) of value to be found in work and education, death, and the meaning of life. None of that would matter much without the author’s gift of telling his story and allowing these issues to flow out of the human relationships and events he describes.

8.  The Boys of  Summer by Roger Kahn. Kahn’s classic tribute to the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team of the 1950s, the team that had Jackie Robinson as its central figure and leader.

9.  War Without Mercy by John Dower. Dower describes the racism that underpinned the Pacific theater of World War II. Unlike the war in Europe, each side viewed the other as less than human and treated the enemy with a brutality consistent with that view.

10.  The Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch. Although the book is now a few decades old, the writer’s message is still spot on. He looks at the empty pursuit of happiness in material things and acquisitions, driven by the increasingly disconnected nature of social relationships in this country, and the promise of the media that happiness lies, not in fulfilling human contact, but in the goods that come with “success.”

11.  The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. A fantastic and touching creation about a man unstuck in time, thrown forward and back, and the woman who loves him. Its being made into a movie, I’m told.

12. Patrimony by Philip Roth. Roth’s account of the illness and death of his father.

13.  The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker . More than one person has told me that this is the finest nonfiction book they have ever read. It is a meditation on what it means to be mortal, and how the knowledge we all have of our inevitable demise influences how we live, in both conscious and unconscious ways. Becker’s book has lead to an entire area of psychological research called “Terror Management Theory.”

14.  For Your Own Good by Alice Miller. Miller is a controversial Swiss psychiatrist who looks at the effect of harsh upbringing on the welfare of children. If you believe that children should be seen and not heard, this book might make you think twice.

15.  A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. A story of self sacrifice and heroism set in the French Revolution. If you can read the last few pages without tears, you have a firmer grip on your emotions that I have on mine.

16.  The Glory of Their Times by Lawrence Ritter. Ritter was a college professor when he began to travel around the country in the 1960s, tape recorder in tow, to obtain the first hand stories of the great baseball players of the first two decades of the 20th century, who were by then very old men. Probably as great an oral history as any of those written by Studs Terkel, and perhaps the greatest baseball book ever.

17.  American Prometheus: the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. Oppenheimer is the man who brought the Manhattan Project to fruition, that is, helped create the bomb we used to end World War II in 1945. But more than that, this book is a wonderful biography of a complex, peculiar, and brilliant man, who was brought low by those who wished to discredit his opposition to nuclear proliferation in the period after the war.

18.  The Mascot by Mark Kurzem. A story that is beyond belief, but turns out to be true. The central figure of the story, when he was a little boy, was adopted as a mascot by a Latvian SS troop after surviving the murder of his family. Why beyond belief? Because he was Jewish. The book reads like the most extraordinary mystery.

19.  All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. The most famous anti-war novel ever written. The book is told from the standpoint of a young German infantryman during World War I.