Why reading lists might be harming your intellectual growth

The reading list; every line in this humble assembly represents a yearning for knowledge.

As useful as these may be, perhaps the reading list silences the dynamism of curiosity. When finishing a book, the reader moves onto the next item on their list. The list represents what the reader wants to read at a particular point in time. The next item on the list may or may not intellectually cohere with what was just read. As such, the reading list may truncate one’s reading into a series of topics, rather than inciting it to recognise the inherent connectedness of all knowledge with the human condition and the wider scheme of things that we inhabit.

If, however, an individual abstains from the reading list, the question arises of how else they should structure or organise their reading. I would suggest that following one’s curiosity and surrendering to spontaneity is an effective way of weaving literature into a coherent intellectual polity. In the course of reading a book, the plethora of topics covered may spark an interest in another related topic or book, which informs what is read next. The next book may not be related in a traditional sense of a topical similarity, but it certainly will be in the readers mind. We know this because curiosity is our mind’s demand to seek out that which it deems as useful to understanding a present scenario. For example, a cryptic movie may tease the viewer with the identity of the murderer, thus enticing them to watch the remaining movie; after discovering the identity of the murderer, the film is garnished with an additional layer of coherence and meaning. We see the meaning of small plot details which would seem insignificant when viewed with ignorance to the murderer’s identity.

In a similar way, when reading, the arousal of curiosity is therefore indicative of a direction of inquiry which the reader’s mind regards as beneficial to the wholeness of knowledge. As such, perhaps we ought to abandon a reading list, except when of course reading in an academic context in which a reading list is important. But for reading as a hobby, or for general intellectual growth, following one’s curiosity may yield sweeter fruit.

An example may better illustrate the point. I read If the Oceans Were Ink, a brilliant book about the author’s (Carla Powers) year-long study of the Quran with the erudite scholar of hadith, Mohammed Akram Nadwi. Shakyh Akram’s insistence of thinking as a means of unlocking meaning and bonding with the Quran is highlighted, which would come as no surprise to anyone even remotely familiar with the Shaykh’s teachings. On a passing note, Carla mentions the respect Shaykh Akram has for the amount of thought Muhammad Asad gave Islam in his autobiography The Road to Mecca. I thus proceeded to read The Road to Mecca, which showed in masterful terms the importance of thinking about Islam as a totality, tightly woven into the rubric of the human condition. This has been one of the most important developments in my thinking that I’ve ever experienced. Though, I noticed, in a silent footnote, the author mentions, seemingly without grief, that his sister and father were incarcerated in concentration camps – the author was used to be a Jew. Such a tragedy, yet Muhammed Asad spoke very little of it. And thus my curiosity towards learning more of the Holocaust developed. I fulfilled this by reading the Diary of Anne Frank, Maus, and The Sunflower. Whilst reading these, a strong sense of empathy developed within me towards the victims of the Holocaust, encouraging me to think further about the condition of the Jewish people. And thus I came to read a Very Short Introduction to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. In learning of the clumsy diplomatic failings of Britain, and the messy, violent, and unjust manner with which the territory was divided, and how Barack Obama regarded the historic conflict ‘as hard as a problem gets’, I wondered whether other partitions were as chaotic. And now, I hope to read into the partition of the British Raj into India and Pakistan.

In each case, the subsequent book defines and emboldens what came before. I cannot tell if the sprawling range of topics in the above string of books a product of my flippant interests is, or whether an intellectual odyssey is unfolding, with curiosity at the helm.

To reiterate, I do not advocate entirely leaving reading lists behind; however, following one’s curiosity’s can yield a fascinating thought structure which unites what one reads. I do vaguely use reading lists for set topics that I want to better understand, though I very willingly surrender to my curiosity.

Perhaps what has inspired this post has been a recent obsession with the idea of an underlying coherence in the purpose (and perhaps essence?) of all things, which is expressed on a civilizational stage – which is in itself a magnification of facets of the human condition – most naturally and truly through the true religion of Islam. A discussion for another day.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Yunus says:

    I’m yet to find someone who strictly adheres to a reading list.


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