The Importance of Reading: Resetting Priorities

John Cousins
February 7, 2023
6 min read

Thomas à Kempis said:

In omnibus requiem quaesivi, et nusquam inveni nisi in angulo cum libro.

Everywhere I have sought peace and not found it, except in a corner with a book.

Sometimes I find myself wrestling with two modes of being: doing stuff and thinking about stuff. If I sit and read, or just stare and let things percolate for too long, I feel guilty. I should be doing something constructive. But it feels so good and I know that this is where ideas come from.

Its a yin and yang. Striking the right balance is the art. Sometimes I get the balance within an acceptable zone. Sometimes I get frustrated if I am out of balance. Its worth at least thinking about why.

Doing Stuff

On the one hand doing stuff is how I connect with people. The artifacts of doing something have a social element as folks can react to it. That can start a dialogue or at least stake a claim in the physical world. It proves we are here.

Doing stuff is creative and purposeful. It feels morally right. Action and active pursuits resonate with my puritan work ethic scolding voice and keeps it at bay from admonishing me. This mode of being is baked into our work culture and self worth.

I’m giving “doing” short shrift here because I tend to over-emphasize it.

Thinking About Stuff

On the other hand there is reflection and introspection. This is where one can mine experience to create meaning and excavate thoughts to deepen wisdom. This is how we discover and refine our reasons for doing stuff.

He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.

― Friedrich Nietzsche

It can be difficult to make adequate time for reflective endeavors. We are wired to do stuff. We tend to fill our days with frenetic activity in order to avoid sitting and thinking and simply being with ourselves.

All of man’s misfortune comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room.

Blaise Pascal

Sometimes I wrestle with how to best spend my time so I am getting the most juice out of life. We are given a bounded amount of time and it is our responsibility not to squander it. Its our responsibility not only not to squander our precious time, but to activity and consciously enjoy our days and use them productively. A powerful way to concentrate living is by reading.

In a real sense, people who have read good literature have lived more than people who cannot or will not read. It is not true that we have only one life to live; if we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish.


If we rubbed a bottle and a Genie appeared and told us that we could avail ourselves of any mentors, guides, and sage advice from the wisest people on Earth, we would be elated at such a magical gift. And if the Genie then said that we could also access these resources from not only the present but the sum total of all the best throughout history, we would feel so grateful and amazed.

This is what written language represents in the repositories of books. All we have to do to access it is read. Its our choice. Its up to us. A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.

Here is the brilliant inventor and writer Lin Yutang on the power of reading:

“Compare the difference between the life of a man who does no reading and that of a man who does. The man who has not the habit of reading is imprisoned in his immediate world, in respect to time and space. His life falls into a set routine; he is limited to contact and conversation with a few friends and acquaintances, and he sees only what happens in his immediate neighborhood. From this prison there is no escape.

But the moment he takes up a book, he immediately enters a different world, and if it is a good book, he is immediately put in touch with one of the best talkers of the world. This talker leads him on and carries him into a different country or a different age, or unburdens to him some of his personal regrets, or discusses with him some special line or aspect of life that the reader knows nothing about. An ancient author puts him in communion with a dead spirit of long ago, and as he reads along, he begins to imagine what that ancient author looked like and what type of person he was…

Now to be able to live two hours out of twelve in a different world and take one’s thoughts off the claims of the immediate present is, of course, a privilege to be envied by people shut up in their bodily prison.”

Source: The Importance of Living

I was turned on to this quote and its author by my good friend James Clear. Sign up for his newsletter at and read his book Atomic Habits. His ideas are transformative.

Deep Work

In order to do our best work and our most important work, we need to take time to quiet the noise in our selves and step away from the push and pull of external demands. Learning to say no is an important life skill. Carving out time to reflect is crucial. It needs to be scheduled and non negotiable.

They also serve who only stand and wait.

- John Milton

Interestingly, there is no antonym for introspection that is commonly used. We tend to think as introspection as the opposite of action when in fact when we are being introspective and thinking, we are participating in a very deep form of action. Its just not externally apparent. Don’t get caught up in appearances.

We are surrounded by an unprecedented variety of seductive distractions. The world is becoming noisier and we need to become ruthless and vigilant protectors of our time. We need to deploy our time in purposeful activities. It’s in our best interest to cultivate the ability to have quiet, insightful, deeply focused periods of productive work.

Check out Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. This book explains how to develop the ability to do deep work. It is critical to cultivate this awareness in order to get things done and perform your best.

Here is an article by Ryan Holiday 31 ways to get more Deep Work accomplished.

Mindfulness Practice

Tim Ferriss has interviewed hundreds of top performing people in all kinds of disciplines and areas including sports, business, tech and military. Eighty percent of them have a mindfulness practice and they are all voracious readers.


Meditation is a great way to get in touch with yourself. Just sitting quietly for 20 minutes a day and breathing deeply can be transformative. It’s difficult to justify the time at first.

You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day — unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.

— Zen Proverb


My library was dukedom large enough.

- Shakespeare

In a real sense, people who have read good literature have lived more than people who cannot or will not read. It is not true that we have only one life to live; if we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish.


Here is a quote from Philip Roth where he talks about what he wants to create in a reading experience for his readers. I have been contemplating his conception and intent as I read and make time for reading.

What I want is to possess my readers while they are reading my book — if I can, to possess them in ways that other writers don’t. Then let them return, just as they were, to a world where everybody else is working to change, persuade, tempt, and control them.

The best readers come to fiction to be free of all that noise, to have set loose in them the consciousness that’s otherwise conditioned and hemmed in by all that isn’t fiction. This is something that every child, smitten by books, understands immediately, though it’s not at all a childish idea about the importance of reading.

Bill Gates is an avid reader and he generously shares his reading lists. Check it out.

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John Cousins
Author, Entrepreneur, & Teacher

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