nulla die sine linea
November 1, 2007 11:44 AM   Subscribe

I want to be a man of letters, but I'm grotesquely undereducated. How do I make time for self-cultivation amidst the never-ending responsibilities of normal life?

There are approximately thirty-two million books I have not read, but want to--many of which are books an eighteenth-century schoolboy would've known by heart. But I have schoolwork/lifework all the time, and after I graduate I'm moving on to grad school, where there will be yet more of it, and thence to academia, which is even worse.

I do a lot of reading as part of all this, but it tends to be secondary-source work that, while interesting, doesn't quite contribute to my "cultivation." How do I a) carve out time, space, and energy for the latter, and b) find an approach to texts that doesn't feel like an extension of the professional reading I do? (that is, a more sensitive and "rich" appreciation--I don't really know how to describe it)
posted by nasreddin to Education (44 answers total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have a TV? Sell it or disconnect it.
posted by biffa at 11:49 AM on November 1, 2007 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Do you have a TV? Sell it or disconnect it.

Yep, got rid of it a long time ago, and it's helped.
posted by nasreddin at 11:51 AM on November 1, 2007

Meh, you can learn from any source. Read. Read something you're interested in. While you're reading it, keep an eye out for references or sources the book mentions. Read those. And so on. Go wide and shallow until something makes you want to go deep. As long as you feel like you don't know anything, you're learning. Don't get worried until you feel like you have it all covered.
posted by yerfatma at 11:52 AM on November 1, 2007

There is no possible answer to this question except to spend more time reading, and reading for pleasure, even in the midst of reading for work. I have personally found it useful to keep a separate stack of books that I want to read eventually, shelved apart from those already read and those needed for work. As I buy books they go into this stack, if I don't begin reading them immediately. This way I always have another one, or a choice of several, available when I finally find a spare moment, and the serendipity of the encounter with the right book at the right time is still possible, both in the bookstore and at home. (It can be fun to try to cultivate as many as possible of those moments of "oh, I've been meaning to read that!")

Also: Remember that this is a lifelong project/process, not a terminable one. You will never finally achieve the end state of "being well-read" and have no more left to read, and this is a very good thing.
posted by RogerB at 12:00 PM on November 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

Gather a collection of short stories or essays. When I started grad school I found that I had far less time for most extracurricular reading and certainly not enough time to read novels. Short stories and essays are short enough to read in one sitting and often very rewarding and enriching. Perhaps you could also journal about the non-academic material that you do have time to read or start collecting favorite quotes and passages.
posted by inconsequentialist at 12:01 PM on November 1, 2007

Thirding 'getting rid of your television'. If you can't bear to part with it, disconnect the cable, move it to another room of the house and cultivate a minor netflix habit.

Then get a copy of How To Read A Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, and work your way through the Western canon (or at least those parts in which you have an interest. Digress whenever you want. Repeat as needed.
posted by jquinby at 12:03 PM on November 1, 2007

Stop surfing the internet.
posted by OmieWise at 12:08 PM on November 1, 2007 [4 favorites]

Do you have an iPod or Blackberry? A commute? Put some of these books from LibriVox on there and listen away (or pay for your own from the iTunes store or ThoughtAudio). Manybooks has free books formatted for your iPod or PDA
Use DailyLit to get classics emailed to you every day.
More great books and classic short stories.
posted by mattbucher at 12:13 PM on November 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

Audiobooks. I believe that there are some copyright free readings.

Samuel Pepys diaries are also available as a blog, for small bits a day of fortification.

I wouldn't worry too much about what century you read, but read something of substance, even if it's a magazine with decent writing - the Atlantic, Wired, Utne Reader, are all good sources of brain fodder.

Also, you don't necessarily need to read all those 18th century tomes to get the relevant bits and important language. deTocqueville only says really cool things in about 20 pages of 600. Maybe you could start with a compilation of excerpts from a particular time period, or subject?
posted by beezy at 12:16 PM on November 1, 2007

Meh, you can learn from any source. Read. Read something you're interested in.

I understand your sentiment, yerfatma, but I don't think this will get at what he's after. As a public librarian, I can attest to the fact that not knowing what to read is a big obstacle to getting at quality stuff. Lots of people are technically avid readers, but they read crap. I think nasreddin's looking for a reading regimen that's a cut above.

While you're reading it, keep an eye out for references or sources the book mentions.

Now that I agree with. Using the references as stepping stones will greatly enhance your learning experience.

For a good single-volume introduction to the Western Canon, check out Harold Bloom's Genius. Quick profiles of 100 movers and shakers. It'll serve as a good starting point for primary-source, highly influential thinkers, especially in philosophy and literature. Very heavy on the dead white males, but definitely illuminates the historical framework upon which academia builds.

Disclaimer: I happen to disagree with a lot of what Bloom says, but this book, I think, serves its purpose well for a question like this one.
posted by Rykey at 12:16 PM on November 1, 2007

Read Martin Eden.
posted by notyou at 12:19 PM on November 1, 2007

On second thought, don't read Martin Eden. You're already reading enough. Use your spare time to do some stuff* outside of books and outside of your brain.

*Build something durable and useful. Become the anti-Eden and be a sailor for a while. Try to get good at golf or swimming or roller-hockey.
posted by notyou at 12:25 PM on November 1, 2007

As for finding an approach to the texts that doesn't feel like a professional duty...well, that's a tough one. I'd say don't get in a hurry (even though you are trying to read thirty million books). If you are reading a line Aristotle or Henry James and it just stops you cold, don't skip over it and keep reading--underline words to look up later (yes, write in your books!), circle phrases that don't make sense, reread the previous sentence, in general practice metacognition. Maybe keep a separate moleskine or notebook (or Vox or Twitter account) to jot down notes that you have as you read. All of this generally works better if the book is a topic that truly interests you (which topics you don't mention). Approaching learning or reading like a diet or workout regimen will not be as satisfying as following your innate curiosity.
posted by mattbucher at 12:25 PM on November 1, 2007

Do you have a TV? Sell it or disconnect it.

I disagree pretty strongly with this. TV (or movies watched on TV) is just another thing, like music or the Internet, which can take up as much or as little of your time as you let it. I find the Internet wastes my time far more than TV does, and what's more, we're living in something of a Silver Age of TV where there is quite a bit of wonderful stuff out there. Six Feet Under, The Wire, Buffy, and Brass Eye are all wonderful works of art. They just aren't books, so they don't really have much to do either way with your question. Ditto for movies, or pretty much anything else aside from hard drugs. Don't become one of those walking jokes who brags about not having a TV.

As for things which WOULD help you out, aside from the sensible advice of just checking out the Western Canon, I'd recommend reading an encyclopedic book like The Book Of Lists, An Incomplete Education, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Whys Of A Philosophical Scrivener, The Cambridge Encyclopedia Of Language, or The World's Most Dangerous Places. Or anything else you might like. Something which will be quite accessible bathroom reading, but with a rich bibliography and many springboards for you to research further. Scan through entertaining, informative, light books until you see the signposts for something a bit more rich, and then explore those things. Learn to read with a notebook within arm's reach, so that, if, say, someone references Arthur Machen as an interesting person or the Thule Society as an interesting thing, you can remember to go to the library to read this or that.

I would also recommend skimming through those comic book Introducing... texts for students and seeing if you're intrigued by the gist of something or someone notable. I got into reading Kierkegaard through, among other things, picking up the Introducing Kierkegaard comic book and then going straight to the horse's mouth for primary sources.

I'd also recommend scoping out anthologies of short stories or humor. You can find many of great authors that way. Alternatively, look on the reading lists of your favorite authors and other artists, or ask for the recommendations of friends whose taste you trust. I got into Will Self because Chris Morris had cited him, and I had gotten into Chris Morris because an online friend had recommended him, and I had met that guy because we had bonded over the Church of the Subgenius and Throbbing Gristle. Music, television, literature, countercultural larks...they're all part of the same human experience. Mine the cultural veins set out before you.

Don't sweat mastering every single sphere of knowledge. You can't. Explore what you like. Don't fool yourself into thinking that you absolutely have to read each and every single thing Harold Bloom says is important - unless that is what you want, which is cool, too. What would you like to read or learn about? Fiction or nonfiction? Do you want a general survey of what "everyone else" has read, or are you just starved of literature at the moment and don't know where to start? Remember, enjoy yourself. Let curiosity be your guide. Read as if no one else can ever hear about what you've read, too. You won't truly learn unless you're truly digging it.

Also, you should come up with a reading schedule. Find a quiet place where, for an hour or two each day, you will just plain read. If you commute via public transport, then that's even better - turn off the damn iPod and bring a book. Eventually you'll get into the habit, and you'll come out one smart bunny.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:38 PM on November 1, 2007

posted by parmanparman at 12:39 PM on November 1, 2007 [2 favorites]

English Literature is absolutely packed to the rafters (even in the last half of the 20th century) with Biblical emblems, allusions, adumbrations, types, references, analogies, and outright retellings --and they are often very surprisingly hard to notice without a deep knowledge of that great primary source, but I don't think anything is likely to make you feel a sharper increase in your level of cultivation than beginning to be able to perceive and appreciate them.

To that end, I recommend starting with a King James Bible, Auerbach's Mimesis Northrop Frye's The Great Code, and a good reference book such as David Lyle Jeffrey's A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature.
posted by jamjam at 12:39 PM on November 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

jamjam gets it. Studying the Bible will teach you a great deal - you can't critique Western Society in an informed fashion without being familiar with the Bible and the history of those who hold it dear.

In a similar vein, try studying Shakespeare. There's quite a bit of interconnectedness with the rest of civilization going on there.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:43 PM on November 1, 2007

Project Gutenberg is a great free resource for "the classics", both as ebooks (which I read every night on a pda) and apparently for audiobooks (though I've never tried those).
posted by anadem at 12:47 PM on November 1, 2007

Response by poster: Thank you for the answers so far. Just to clarify a few things:

I'm not looking for things to read; I already know what the gaps in my education are. I'm just looking for a way to arrange my life in such a way that I can actually make progress on this task (which I acknowledge to be never-ending).

I can't read books electronically or listen to them, it destroys the reading experience for me--I'm very focused on the spatial relationship of the text to the page.

I am well aware that there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, but I am interested in specific strategies that can help me construct one.
posted by nasreddin at 12:58 PM on November 1, 2007

If I understand your question, you are trying to put some of the joy back in reading while faced with present and future compulsory educational reading. I was an avid reader until college, when pleasure reading went out the window. I revived healthy reading habits in grad school by starting small. Try picking a novel or play you have always wanted to read, but which is not too dry or taxing, so you will look forward to picking it up after academic reading. I know you are not looking for specific recommendations, but Ibsen's plays lend themselves to the approach I described.
posted by A Long and Troublesome Lameness at 1:16 PM on November 1, 2007

I realize this doesn't answer your question, but I just have to ask: You're grotesquely undereducated?

Considering how well you wrote the question -- and the fact that no one has complained about it -- I conclude I have no idea what "grotesquely undereducated" means!

Saracasm for humor? Self-esteem issues? I'm genuinely curious now!
posted by tcv at 1:20 PM on November 1, 2007

I've touted it before, but here goes again. I have a checklist of daily tasks. Oee of them is "30 minutes pleasure reading" and another is "Vitamins." Build a routine; the time will avail itself. Strict adherence to a sleep schedule and a decisive reading location are also advisable.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 1:24 PM on November 1, 2007 [2 favorites]

The way to go about this depends on your personality, and there may also be less distinction between "professional" and side reading than you think. (Honestly, if you don't get at least some enjoyment or "richness" or whatever out of reading for your course work, you may want to reconsider your choice of career. Of course it does feel like work sometimes, but usually it takes people until the most difficult stretches of a Ph.D. program before the fun feels like it's completely disappeared. A more or less ineradicable pleasure in reading is an absolute necessity for success in the humanities.)

Here are some more thoughts drawn from my observations of graduate students planning long unstructured reading projects, like preparing for their qualifying exams.

People who like to plan often make lists and set quantitative goals for themselves. You can easily begin to keep track of what you'd like to read next, based either on your estimate of the book's importance or how much you think you'll enjoy or profit by reading it. Then set a goal – even in the middle of other work, unless you're really overburdened, something like a book per week should be possible just by reading before bed, or in some other down time. This approach might be taken further by trying to identify dead spots in your daily activity and replace them with more time reading – just as OmieWise said, if you've already eliminated television, consider putting your Internet use on a stricter clock as well.

I am not a planner of this sort by temperment (and don't want to turn into one of the "list-makers" that Murray in A Thousand Clowns so detested). So as I said above the most useful thing for me is simply to have a lot of different books available, and then to let one jump out and demand to be read at the right moment. But this also puts a lot of trust, perhaps too much, in the simple enjoyment of the experience, and when it feels too forced it doesn't (and I don't) work at all.
posted by RogerB at 1:28 PM on November 1, 2007

brijit might be helpful to you. they post 100-word synopsys of articles and thus help you amass general awareness and find your way to the stuff you really want to read in its entirety.
posted by krautland at 1:32 PM on November 1, 2007

Best answer: I, too, feel frustrated that I was denied a rigorous classical education by being born a couple of centuries too late. For some stupid reason, I tend to beat myself up a good deal about this ("God dammit, I must be the last person on Earth who hasn't finished Don Quixote."). I think it's unreasonable to expect that, within a period of a couple of years, you can give yourself a complete classical education. But I find that -- if I'm having fun at it, and if I have some general goals -- I do get lots of reading done over time.

I keep a couple of different Western canon lists around for myself to chip away at whenever I get a chance. It's really satisfying to check off books, or to look back after a couple of months (or years) to see how far you've come.

- The Harvard Classics are easy to read a bit at a time, since they're accessible from anywhere you have the internets.
- St. John's College has an amazing, wonderful reading list. Many (if not most) of these are available online.
- I have a copy of the Stanford English PhD qualifying exam list which I like lots. Many Bothans died to bring us this information.

I think it's also important to keep up with the best of current fiction, drama, and poetry (and film, and music, and art, but that's a different AskMe). I read and skim the following to get ideas:

- The Believer
- The New York Review of Books
- Bookslut
- And others.

The most important thing for me is to engage with what I read beyond just turning the pages and scanning the words. In order to really learn from (and retain) what I read, I find that I have to:

- Memorize passages,
- Write short responses, or
- Have in-depth discussions with smart people who are good readers

Memorizing is actually great for getting that "sensitive, rich" experience that you talk about. Write a poem or a short dramatic monologue or a self-contained passage onto an index card, hang it up on your bathroom mirror, and spend a week or two repeating it over and over until you've got it solid. Declaim it, perform it, tell it to your friends. Memorizing text allows to you "read as a writer," (or as a performer) and gives you a kind of tactile understanding of the language. You end up with a more holistic, less exegetic way of connecting to the text.

As for writing responses -- I think, for me, a quick journal entry is often enough (it doesn't have to be an academic essay). And discussing your readings with other people keeps your reading project alive and fun. If your discussion partners are interesting folks, you'll also get book recommendations, contextual knowledge, and more insight into your readings.

One final note. You can try scheduling your self-education -- maybe a half-hour daily, in the early morning or at night -- but you should make it flexible enough to accommodate your life and your whimsies. If it becomes a chore to slog through your daily readings, you're going to stop. If you're strictly following a book-list, then you won't be able to go on profitable detours. Take as your example the life of Johnson.
He seemed to learn by intuition; for though indolence and procrastination were inherent in his constitution, whenever he made an exertion he did more than any one else ... He had no settled plan of life, nor looked forward at all, but merely lived from day to day. Yet he read a great deal in a desultory manner, without any scheme of study, as chance threw books in his ways, and inclination directed him through them ... He might, perhaps, have studied more assiduously; but it may be doubted, whether such a mind as his was not more enriched by roaming at large in the fields of literature, than if it had been confined to any single spot ... The flesh of animals who feed excursively, is allowed to have a higher flavour than that of those who are cooped up. May there not be the same difference between men who read as their taste prompts, and men who are confined in cells and colleges to stated tasks? ... He had a peculiar facility in seizing at once what was valuable in any book, without submitting to the labour of perusing it from beginning to end.
In short, have fun.
posted by ourobouros at 1:41 PM on November 1, 2007 [56 favorites]

Response by poster: Considering how well you wrote the question -- and the fact that no one has complained about it -- I conclude I have no idea what "grotesquely undereducated" means!

Saracasm for humor? Self-esteem issues? I'm genuinely curious now!

Sorry if this came off as arrogant. I guess I realize that I'm not undereducated by contemporary standards, but if I were to allow that to affect my view of myself, I would be one of those glutted and self-satisfied people I hate. I am definitely undereducated compared to the people from the past that I admire and emulate.
Thanks for the compliment, though, and I don't at all mean to imply that people who don't feel the burning need to read Burton and Suetonius are somehow worse or less admirable. This is just a personal obsession.
posted by nasreddin at 1:46 PM on November 1, 2007

It's dirty, but the first books I read were all of Bukowski's novels. They basically got me hooked back on reading because they are so short and fast to read. My girlfriend is also a keen reader, so she helps a lot. I get a lot of hand me downs.
posted by stackhaus23 at 1:51 PM on November 1, 2007

Best answer: If you're the sort of person who enjoys background music, try carving out a time to read which lines up to the length of an album you can listen to as you do so. Make reading mixes. Read with a notebook on a neighboring desk or arm of a choir. Bring something to drink and some sort of gum, candy, or healthy snack which you can robotically munch on as you read.

Also, as said above ad nauseum, read what you like. Trust me, it's a waste of time to trick yourself into thinking that it is worthwhile to merely gaze upon each page of a book you can barely tolerate (or worse, understand).

Another notion, depending on your temperament, may be to keep a journal for your reading. Write down what strikes you about the book and any favorite quotes or concepts you may have picked up. It's gratifying to constantly add to the official the list of books which you have read! And if you keep those memories sharp, then it'll be more easy to keep drawing connections between what you read.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:55 PM on November 1, 2007

Best answer: I'm very much like you, nasreddin. Here are a few things that have worked for me:

-- I never read two similar books back-to-back (unless I'm SO into a multi-part series that I can't help myself). I read a non-fiction science book, then a classic novel, then a book of Shakespeare criticism, then a mystery... (I'm a little more into mixing middle-brow stuff with Great Works than you are, but I don't think that invalidates this approach.) This keeps things lively and fun, and the unlike books ping off each other in unexpected, stimulating ways.

If I found a list -- e.g. from Bloom -- of important books to read, and if it was categorized by type, author or chronology, I'd read those books, but I'd randomize the order.

-- Often, I read two or three books "at once," for a similar mental effect as in my first point, above. Not literally at once, of course. But I read a chapter of one on Monday, a chapter of the other on Tuesday and then back to the first on Wednesday. And so on.

-- Books in non-traditional formats. Okay, you're not into audiobooks. I urge you to get over it. Audiobooks will NEVER be my primary way of reading, but they're really good at night, in bed, with the lights off (especially if you have a bed partner who would be pissed if you kept the lights on). Audiobooks mean I'm reading during every break in my day.

I get up in the morning and walk to the subway. On the way there, I listen to an audiobook. Once on the train, if I have a seat, I read a paper book (I continue listening to the audiobook if I have to stand and hold on). I listen to the audiobook on my walk from the subway to work. I listen to it while I'm going out to get lunch -- but while I sit and eat my lunch, I read a paper book.

Usually, I like to mix and match, but sometimes I listen-to and read the same book. I read during the day and then continue via audio at night, with the lights off.

I'm also considering e-ink readers, which will allow me to carry multiple books around with me.

-- I read fiction -- whether it's by Stephen King or Tolstoy -- for the same reasons. I read for prose style, plot and character. I read for how it's going to make me FEEL, not how it's going to make me think. I have rejected pretty much all academic ways of reading. You may not want to do that, but I can tell you, for me, reading is all about fun and sensation. And I DO have a brain. If there's some sort of intellectual content, I trust that I'll receive it.

-- Note that you'll NEVER feel like you're well read. I bet you anything that Harold Bloom, when he's alone at night, feels uninformed and ill-educated. There are enough books to defeat the most intellectual person on Earth. You can strive for a goal, but you'll never reach it -- you'll never FEEL like you've reached it.

There are two ways to handle this. You can let it defeat you or you can realize that the fun is the process. At which point, it stops being a race. If you spend the rest of your life reading just one great book, you'll have a great time while you're reading it.
posted by grumblebee at 2:14 PM on November 1, 2007 [3 favorites]

Film night! If you're without a TV, rig up a comfortable way to watch on your PC, rent some great classics on DVD, pop some popcorn, and enjoy. Watch one of these per week and you'll be set for a couple of years.
posted by gimonca at 2:37 PM on November 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

If you want a more guided course, try something like the Univeristy of Chicago's Basic Studies program, commonly known as the UofC Great Books course. There's got to be one somewhere in the NYC area.

Also a great way to meet guys/chicks, if you're into that (according to my sources).
posted by nax at 3:01 PM on November 1, 2007

gimonca, I'm a huge film buff, but I'm totally confused how a "film night" will help nasreddin become more well READ.
posted by grumblebee at 3:07 PM on November 1, 2007

I assume you are in college, since you say you're going to grad school next. I'm not sure I understand why you've got "professional" readings that are all secondary - that sucks. Why not take courses at your college that are mainly primary source work? Take advantage now of the chance to get expert help working through those primary sources! So much more long-term worthwhile than getting in one more semester of "Topics in Contemporary Theory of X". That's the narrow crap that will wait until grad school - take advantage of the breadth that's possible in college.

But if you want other suggestions, the only thing that has worked for me is to spend a ton of time in the library, with some work that I need to do and unlimited permission to avoid that work by finding something interesting from the shelves. (No internet access, and no games on your computer, is a must for this technique. I also like to bring enough -- safely containered -- food and drink to comfortable stay put for several hours.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:37 PM on November 1, 2007

And don't worry about planning a perfect order to read everything in. Just start in on something that seems cool, read it or read as much of it as is appealing, then move on to whatever is suggested by it. You will gradually build a better foundational understanding of what all these basic works are about, and then you can go back and read them/parts of them again as needed. There will always be more classics than you can read, and each one of them rewards re-reading at different ages and with different sets of background knowledge, so any order you pick will be less-than-perfect and still better-than-not-starting.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:40 PM on November 1, 2007

I find that trying to write about a certain topic, becoming entrenched in its very essence, doing research, writing outlines and doing lots of thinking that most people probably don't actively do while they're reading, is a great way to learn more. Being more engaged in what you're reading by trying to explain it in your own words might be more beneficial than just skimming through stuff and moving onto the next book.

Coming up with your own ideas and framing them through your perspectives makes understanding new material easier when similarities arise. Finding relationships between two distant subjects is always a great way to apply the knowledge you have in one field to another, and on that note I recommend you check out James Burke's Connections series.

At least, in my paltry experience, the stuff that I know the most about is what I have studied and regurgitated myself.
posted by erpava at 3:51 PM on November 1, 2007

If you can deal with audiobooks I definitely suggest them- especially for times when you absolutely need to work on other things. Doesn't always work for me though-- some of the people reading throw me off and I tend to rather getting enveloped in a book reading the words than hearing them spoke.

Seconding the idea of researching too- even if it's not what you'd consider typically scholarly-- it seems to make you question more and notice things in pleasure reading as well. I've been researching trickster theory and monster legends for a couple of years now and just the act of learning and researching makes me read novels with more vigor, come up with more ideas, and generally just feel less ignorant-- even if my topic matter isn't referenced in what I'm reading.

Just read read and read some more-- it'll take years to become well read-- if ever at all. But if you enjoy it, then the pursuit's the very best thing. And good luck!
posted by actionpact at 4:50 PM on November 1, 2007

Sorry, I picked up on the self-cultivation bit.
posted by gimonca at 6:01 PM on November 1, 2007

Along the same lines as audiobooks, try looking at iTunes U. It has a good selection of lectures you can fit in whenever you have a free moment. And some of the courses come with a syllabus, so you could indeed take the course from wherever you live.
posted by daviss at 1:12 AM on November 2, 2007

Leave the car at home and start taking the bus to work, so you can read instead of drive. (If you walk or cycle, ignore that - your health comes first, and daily commute is an easy way to get the week's exercise out of the way without it cutting into your quality time).

I would also suggest that an Eighteenth Century man of letters is actually a deceptive concept as he likely becomes a man of letters by being a man of more than letters - his education obtains some of its depth partly by being broad. I don't know if firsthand experience travelling the sea by sail allows you get more out of Moby Dick, but you can see where I'm going - when reading a work, the more you bring to table, the more you can get out of the work. If that "more" is mostly limited to "other books", I'm not sure a man of letters is what you become.

Next point: You haven't graduated, so I'm guessing you're young. Getting into good habits now is an excellent way to become what you want to be, but don't beat yourself up about not being there yet - you haven't lived long enough. (Yeah yeah, I know how many people did amazing things in their 20s back in those days. But there is more knowledge in the world today. The bar is higher.)

In summary - don't put the books on so high a pedestal that they prevent you becoming a man of letters. And you still have time on your side.
posted by -harlequin- at 2:29 AM on November 2, 2007

Subscribe to the LRB and NYRB. Always have a Penguin Classic on the go.
posted by Mocata at 9:03 AM on November 2, 2007

I will sometimes sign myself up for a "course" on something. It's been long enough since I was in college that I miss the practice or learning as a designed exercise.

I will pick the thing/subject. Design a syllabus and reading list, and make myself do assignments. The class usually lasts 3-6 months. I will also seek out a field trip or film or speaker I can go to as part of the "course."

When I am feeling lazy, I will take the cheapest class I can at a community college. Because it's about what I'm going to teach myself and learn from the process, not about the actual instructor.

I also learn best in a discussion or teaching format. I'd be lost without my bookclub. I even rounded up a few people to read Proust over a year with me.
posted by Mozzie at 12:48 PM on November 2, 2007

How do I make time for self-cultivation amidst the never-ending responsibilities of normal life?

Your decision to pursue a real education, to aim for the best that our culture has produced is pretty much a decision not to lead a normal life.

With that in mind, why not reframe those "never-ending responsibilities?" How much of your time and headspace are you going to devote to them? Are they really that essential? How many of them can you ease out of your life or keep at arm's length?
posted by jason's_planet at 12:51 PM on November 2, 2007

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