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Teddy Roosevelt’s 10 Rules for Reading

President_Roosevelt_Reading_a_BookIt’s well known among historians that our venerated 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt, was probably the most well-read president, and perhaps one of the most well-read men in all of history. He would read a book before breakfast every day, and depending on his schedule, another two or three in the evening (he was a speed reader extraordinaire). By his own estimates he read tens of thousands of books over the course of his lifetime.

What may not be known to the average reader is how much of a book advocate he really was. Rebecca has already outlined some of his book-loving tendencies, but in doing some research for a different writing project, I stumbled upon a few pages of his autobiography that are just too good to not share with our Riot Readers. My own thoughts are in italics:

1. “The room for choice is so limitless that to my mind it seems absurd to try to make catalogues which shall be supposed to appeal to all the best thinkers. This is why I have no sympathy whatever with writing lists of the One Hundred Best Books, or the Five-Foot Library. It is all right for a man to amuse himself by composing a list of a hundred very good books… But there is no such thing as a hundred books that are best for all men, or for the majority of men, or for one man at all times.”

Brilliant! Here we are as readers, ever debating the merits of this list and that list, and we never stop to realize that we can all just end the fighting and enjoy what we enjoy. No list of books will ever satisfy everyone, so why not just make a list of Lots of Very Good Books That Most People Will Enjoy But Not Everyone Has To.

2. “A book must be interesting to the particular reader at that particular time.”

Ah! Sweet freedom! Newsflash: if a book isn’t all that interesting to you, DON’T READ IT.

3. “Personally, the books by which I have profited infinitely more than by any others have been those in which profit was a by-product of the pleasure; that is, I read them because I enjoyed them, because I liked reading them, and the profit came in as part of the enjoyment.”

Similar to the above, your reading should be a pleasurable experience. Granted, there’s some merit to slogging your way through certain books, but don’t make it a habit.

4. “The reader, the booklover, must meet his own needs without paying too much attention to what his neighbors say those needs should be.”

Screw what everyone else says you need to read; read what you damn well please. That’s what being a lover of books is all about — there’s no need to feel pressure or angst about your TBR list, as Rebecca so eloquently put it last week.

5. “He must not hypocritically pretend to like what he does not like.”

Don’t fake it. If you don’t like The Great Gatsby, shout it from the rooftops. If you think Stephen King is a dolt, I’ll forgive you. Don’t pretend to like something just because you think you’re supposed to. 

6. “Books are almost as individual as friends. There is no earthly use in laying down general laws about them. Some meet the needs of one person, and some of another; and each person should beware of the booklover’s besetting sin, of what Mr. Edgar Allan Poe calls ‘the mad pride of intellectuality,’ taking the shape of arrogant pity for the man who does not like the same kind of books.”

There are no hard and fast rules, we all like different things, so stop bickering already. Also, don’t judge others about their book choices lest ye be judged. You know you have some book skeletons in your closet.

7. “Now and then I am asked as to ‘what books a statesman should read,’ and my answer is, poetry and novels – including short stories under the head of novels.”

A statesman, politician, historian, and gamesman says to read novels and poetry and short stories above all else. Awesome.

8. “Ours is in no sense a collector’s library. Each book was procured because some one of the family wished to read it. We could never afford to take overmuch thought for the outsides of books; we were too much interested in their insides.”

Don’t collect titles on your shelves that you think will make you look neato and well-read. Stock your shelves with what you’re interested in, and if people judge you, throw ‘em out the door.

9. “[We] all need more than anything else to know human nature, to know the needs of the human soul; and they will find this nature and these needs set forth as nowhere else by the great imaginative writers, whether of prose or of poetry.”

Isn’t this really the heart of reading? Gosh I love this line. Reading is ultimately about the human spirit, and those are the books we most love and enjoy. Amen, brother.

10. “Books are all very well in their way, and we love them at Sagamore Hill; but children are better than books.”

Believe it or not, there are some things in life more important than books. Exercise, eating right, healthy relationships — these are all important things. Sure, read as much as you possibly can, but don’t do it at the neglect of every other realm of your life.

I already thought TR was a cool dude, but after coming across what he has to say about books and reading, I’m even more in love. He understood that reading should be about freedom of choice, not about the prescriptive lists and snobbery you often find in the literary world.

Be free to read what you choose and enjoy, dear Riot Readers! Our 26th president wouldn’t have it any other way.

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About Jeremy Anderberg

Jeremy writes and edits for The Art of Manliness during the day. By night he writes a little more, reads a lot more, and endlessly watches How I Met Your Mother with his wife, Jane. Follow him on Twitter: @JeremyAnderberg