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13 Reading Tips From Theodore Roosevelt

In April 1915, former president Theodore Roosevelt penned a piece for Ladies Home Journal titled “The Books That I Read and When and How I Do My Reading.” In it, he notes that “it would be impossible to try to enumerate all the books I read, or even all the kinds”—which is understandable, considering he typically read around a book a day and was often reading several books at a time.

Still, Roosevelt recommends plenty of books in the piece, name drops a few titles he’s not so crazy about, and doles out tons of reading tips in the process. Here are a few of them.

1. START READING YOUNG.

“Fathers and mothers who are wise,” Roosevelt wrote, “can train their children first to practice, and soon to like, the sustained mental application necessary to enjoy good books.” He also advised that parents have their children learn a second language, “so that at least one other great literature, in addition to our own noble English literature, shall be open to him or her.” On both counts, Roosevelt is drawing from his own experience: Confined to the indoors as a young boy because of his asthma, he read constantly. He also read in German, French, Italian, and Latin (although he didn’t enjoy reading in Latin; he called it drudgery).

2. DON’T FORCE YOURSELF TO READ WHAT YOU DON’T LIKE.

Medical University Caucasian female student studying at library beautiful college girl sleeping while sitting in front of an open book resting her chin on a hand looking exhausted. Overwork concept

“The reader’s personal and individual taste must be the guiding factor” when choosing a book, Roosevelt wrote. “I like hunting books and books of exploration and adventure. I do not ask anyone else to like them.”

Roosevelt notes that “the equation of personal taste is as powerful in reading as in eating; and within certain broad limits the matter is merely one of individual preference, having nothing to do with the quality either of the book or of the reader’s mind.”

He wrote that he likes “apples, pears, oranges, pineapples, and peaches. I dislike bananas, alligator pears and prunes … at times in the tropics I have been exceedingly sorry I could not learn to like bananas and on round-ups, in the cow country in the old days, it was even more unfortunate not to like prunes; but I simply could not make myself like either, and that was all there was to it.”

Roosevelt goes on to say that of the books he had tried to read in the last month, he could read Guy Mannering, The Antiquary, Pendennis, Vanity Fair, Our Mutual Friend, and The Pickwick Papers over and over, but did not care for Fortunes of Nigel, Esmond, and The Old Curiosity Shop. “I have no question that the latter three books are as good as the first six,” he wrote. “Doubtless for other people they are better; but I do not like them, any more than I like prunes and bananas.”

And of course, as Roosevelt noted in his autobiography, a reader “must not hypocritically pretend to like what he does not like.”

3. TAKE BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS WITH A GRAIN OF SALT.

You’re the best person to choose what books you want to read. “If a man or woman is fond of books he or she will naturally seek the books that the mind and soul demand,” Roosevelt wrote. “Suggestions of a possibly helpful character can be made by outsiders, but only suggestions; and they will probably be helpful about in proportion to the outsider’s knowledge of the mind and soul of the person to be helped.”

Or, as he wrote in his autobiography, “The reader, the booklover, must meet his own needs without paying too much attention to what his neighbors say those needs should be.” And all readers “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.”

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