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Stephen Mayo | Sticking With It

Sticking With It

Dec. 5, 2021

A few days ago, I finished reading a book titled The Metaphysical Club.  It's a detailed account of the philosophers and thinkers in the U.S. in the decades after the Civil War.

It was difficult reading for me. The writing was more complex than I’m accustomed to, using vocabulary and sentence structure that I found challenging. I sometimes caught myself re-reading a sentence 3-4 times trying to understand, what is the author saying?

But I stuck with it, and gradually a few things changed.  First, my reading skill improved.  I became accustomed to the style of writing, and it became easier to obtain and retain the meaning from each paragraph.  I learned how to find the critical sentences in each paragraph that conveyed important points, and not dwell on the ones that provided ancillary details.

Second, I learned how to make the book my own.  I realized, ok, the author has 1,000 things to say, and a few main themes, but what am I taking out of this?  What are the facts, stories, lessons and concepts that I think are true and relevant to me, and that I want to retain?   This required reading for understanding, followed by critical thinking.  I found myself pausing periodically to ask, what do I make of all this? 

Third: my confidence grew. My notion of my reading ability expanded.  There’s a voice inside me celebrating… I can read hard books! 

The Metaphysical Club was filled with profound gold nuggets.  I just had to dig for them more than usual.  The experience was incredibly satisfying. I will still read other books that are more accessible to me. But now, when I encounter a book that is both appealing and demanding, I’m less likely to be scared off by the task.

I’m talking here about reading a book, but of course this is also a metaphor for all the difficult things we try in life. Maybe you’ve taken a position with new responsibilities, or you’ve been called up from JV to play on the varsity team.  If you’re there, it might help to be patient with yourself as you build new skills, to identify the unique contributions you have to offer, and to acknowledge and celebrate your successes.


P.S. #1: Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in History.  And reading it was absolutely worth the effort.

P.S. #2: If you’d like to get more from what you read, Mortimer J. Adler’s 1940 classic How to Read a Book is a treasure: a practical and thorough guide.

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