“Every reader, as he reads, is actually the reader of himself. The writer’s work is only a kind of optical instrument he provides the reader so he can discern what he might never have seen in himself without this book. The reader’s recognition in himself of what the book says is the proof of the book’s truth.”
I was 15, and I had only started my reading habit. What got me into it at first was self-improvement, so my shelf was full of self-help books. At the end of the day, they all revolved around the conventional idea that you could turn your dreams into reality by manifesting them, or by “faking it ’till you make it.”
One day I found an old copy of Robert Greene’s “The 48 Laws of Power” at home. It had somebody’s signature in it, so it seemed like it was gifted. But to this day, I have no idea who it was gifted from, or gifted to.
I remember feeling confused. I expected to find the contents of a typical self-help book. I thought of “power” in the spirit of the self-help lingo, as in “the power to be your best self and go after your goals” kind of thing. I didn’t think of “power” here as the ability to rule over people — that kind of power.
I remember then being offended by what I read.
This is a book that teaches you on how you can manipulate others to get what you want. Some of the laws were particularly alarming, like “Law 7 – Get Others to do the Work for You, but Always take the Credit” and “Law 15 – Crush Your Enemies Totally”.
I personally didn’t believe in doing most of what the book teaches — and I still don’t — but whether I realized it or not, I expected the world to behave in the same way.
Of course, how the world is is oftentimes very different from what you imagine it to be. I had a wishful belief that if I did good, other people would do good to me in return. But I learned the hard way that that’s just not how the world works — there are sharks out there who would take advantage of anybody, and bad things happen to good people.
It took me years to pick up that book again from the dusty shelf where I left it, to realize that the book is simply describing the world as it is — it’s telling you, “you don’t have to practice these lessons, but you need to be aware of them, because they’re happening around you.”
Greene has since become one of my favorite authors, and his work has had a colossal impact on my understanding of human nature and creativity. And if you’re wondering, plenty of people have remarked about how he’s the exact opposite of what he writes about — many have talked about how sweet he is as a person, and how generous he is in giving others credit and praise for their work.
Through Greene’s books, I discovered his apprentice, Ryan Holiday’s work, which also did a lot to challenge my beliefs. Particularly, they made me realize how small a role each and every one of us actually have in this life, and we should humbly carry out that role as best we can.
While it’s good to set goals or targets that you’d like to achieve, I believe that there are downsides of being a goal-driven society, which not many people like to talk about.
For one thing, we tend to believe that the world revolves around us — and that’s really what the whole manifesting thing is about, isn’t it? It’s like that oft-quoted line in Paolo Coelho’s “The Alchemist”, “When you want something, the whole universe conspires in order for you to achieve it”.
As a result, we become self-absorbed. We long for unreasonably risky and unrealistic goals, even though they aren’t good for us, even though they aren’t aligned with who we are as a person in our values, interests and strengths. But that doesn’t matter, we say, because that’s our dream.
This disengagement from our values and our obsession with outcomes are ultimately why so many of us are miserable.
“Ego is the Enemy” was my first Ryan Holiday book, and reading it was like a huge punch in the gut — a huge blow to my ego. No other author had told me “fuck your dreams”. No other author had told me that it’s much better to pursue things that you’re actually good at, rather than things that you’re merely fantasizing about.
Anyway, what I’m trying to say in this article is that all of us hold certain beliefs about the world — many of which we picked up culturally and socially. But we tend to cling to such beliefs so tightly, that it becomes a comfort zone in a way.
We experience confirmation bias — we only look for and interpret information in a way that confirms those beliefs. We become triggered or defensive whenever those beliefs are challenged — just as how I felt when I first read “The 48 Laws of Power”.
The antidote to this is to cultivate an open mind. Be open to the possibility that you could be wrong, or that you have a partial view of the big picture. Remember that we all change, no matter how much we’d like to deny it. Our beliefs may change as well, as we get wiser and more acquainted with the ways of the world.
For this reason, be open to reading books that offer alternate perspectives. Read books that challenge your beliefs, that make you think harder about why you believe whatever it is you believe in.
To give another example, I may not be atheistic or agnostic, but I do appreciate the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s work. I could see why he was so against the conventional “good and evil” view of morality. But I also realized that most religions don’t inherently teach us to think in black and white terms. Rather, it’s likely the product of society itself, for holding on to their beliefs too rigidly — which is why moderation is at the very core of Islam.
Anyway, a good book is like a loyal friend — it may offer you comfort and consolation, but it may also tear your pre-established worldviews down and sting you if it has to, as long as it brings you closer to the heart of life itself — that is, truly understanding yourself and the world around you.
To paraphrase a saying, a good book should comfort you when you’re disturbed, and disturb you when you’re comfortable.