How T. S. Eliot Found a Book That Changed His Life

“Your true educators and cultivators will reveal to you the original sense and basic stuff of your being”, wrote Friedrich Nietzsche—“something that is not ultimately amenable to education or cultivation by anyone else.” Nietzsche’s essay (which I’ve quoted often) is in one sense a paean to Arthur Schopenhauer, who changed his life. In another sense it is a description of the power of a single book and a single thinker to shape us and change the course of our lives, if we are lucky enough to come across them.

I’ve been reading a great deal of T. S. Eliot lately, and in one biography came across a Nietzschean description of how Eliot found his educator.

Where for Nietzsche it was Schopenhauer (a man whose philosophy grew out of an awful first job), for Eliot it is Jules Laforgue, the French symbolist poet who died the year before Eliot was born. In 1908, when Eliot was twenty, he went to the Harvard Union Library, one of his favourite spots for reading. Crawford describes in his biography:

T S Eliot poetry Jules Laforgue Nietzsche educator“There, upstairs, warmly protected from the December weather outside, he (Eliot) was looking through recently received books. Alert University library staff helped stock the Union’s shelves. Tom’s eye was caught by the name of Arthur Symons, and by his book’s title, The Symbolist Movement in Literature. It was a small second edition published earlier that year and just imported from London…”

Much later in his Paris Review Interview Eliot would describe that book by Symons as one that introduced him to Laforgue and therefore changed the course of his life.

Robert Crawford describes in his biography of Eliot how

“Before late 1908, Tom had never heard of Laforgue. By late 1909 he was almost his reincarnation. The experience was like falling in love. A decade later, when his marriage was in trouble, Tom used strikingly erotic language to describe the vital, transformational reading, implying, perhaps, that (though the object of attention was a dead man) it had been better than falling in love. 

Eliot described the process by saying,

“When a young writer is seized with his first passion of this sort he may be changed, metamorphosed almost, within a few weeks, from a bundle of second-hand sentiments into a person.”

It is a Nietzschean description of a true educator—an experience we should all hope to have. Crawford certainly believes that had Eliot not stumbled across Symons’ book on French symbolist poetry in the Harvard Union, he never would have become the poet he was. This reminds me of a quotation of Mark Greif, who in an essay on his own educator, philosopher Stanley Cavell, said that “What matters in a book is that it is the book you need, not where in the library it may be found.”

What Books Should We Read?: The Ones We Need, No Matter Where We Find Them

The popular blog Farnam Street, run by Shane Parrish, recently published a post arguing that we should try our best to read the books that other people are not reading:

What books should we read? Shane Parrish, Farnam Street, Haruki Murakami
I disagree.

“Most of us read the wrong things. As Haruki Murakami put it, reading what everyone else reads means you’re probably going to think what everyone else thinks. All those books from high-school? Everyone else has read them too. The best-sellers? Same

That’s not to say these books aren’t valuable. They are. They’re just not going to help you get unique insights, see problems in a different way than others, or even help you solve more problems. They will however make you sound like you’re smart because you can talk about the things everyone else is talking about. However, there is an old adage that when you do what everyone else is doing you shouldn’t be surprised to get the same results everyone else gets.”

Most of what Parrish writes is useful and insightful, but this was one of those things that I felt missed the mark. It takes a short-sighted view of reading, one that I think diminishes the reasons why we read, and encourages a zero-sum approach to books.

Do you remember the books you read in high school? Do you remember how you were changed by them, what insights they offered you in your life? I’m guessing most of us don’t; and if we do remember the books, the insights we gleaned at age 18 or younger probably aren’t those that we would glean today. We most likely focussed on themes in a book that we could recite in an essay, or sections that a teacher encouraged us to focus on.

When we read a book we read it with a certain lens on. Any great book has too many important revelations and insights on human nature for us to interpret or remember them all. We need a set of lenses in order to make sense of what we read, and to be able to ever finish a book. But those lenses themselves change over time. Shane reads with a productivity lens on; I read with an education/humanities lens on. At different periods in our lives we might try to find insights on relationships and love, careers and work, money and envy, old age and death. Our reading of a book would be different from one day to the next, let alone if spaced out by a year or more.

That’s why we will underline different passages in a book on our second reading to the first. With each additional reading, we gain different things from it. We are changed in different ways.

And we can never read every book in the world. Far better to re-read ten times the book that spoke to us in a fundamentally meaningful way (even if it’s a book everyone else is reading), than to read ten other books that may not change us at all, even if they are obscure and not being read by anyone.

The other reality is that most people don’t read properly. They read to finish a book; and they read to discover the passage that they heard quoted beforehand. But just because one passage is often-quoted does not mean it is the part of a book that will be most useful to you. I’ve often read up to a very frequently quoted section of a book and not even remembered that I’d heard the quote somewhere before; it just didn’t match what I needed from a book at this time.

Read a book slowly, and it will seem as if you read a different book to the person who read it quickly. Read it in a certain location, even, and you will get something else entirely out of it. Books are different for each person, no matter how many people read them.

It does not matter if you find a book on the bestseller list, or if it is the book that everyone else is reading. What matters is that it is the book that speaks to you, and helps you live your life. To worry, like Shane Parrish does in his post, that you are reading something that others are also reading is to miss some of the best that has ever been written. It is to read to be different, rather than reading to live a better life.

It doesn’t matter what books you read—it could be the same as everyone else—if you read it properly, read it with a certain focus, and look for what parts of the book are not the most often quoted, but are the most useful to your life.

This reminds me of a quote by one of my favourite essayists, Mark Greif:

“What matters in a book is that it is the book you need, not where in the library it may be found.”

That seems to me to be perennially true. The best thing we can do is read for ourselves, and not at all worry about what others are reading.

How to Succeed at College and University

I think the first course we ever take should be “College 101” or “University 101”; in other words, how to get the most out of our time here. Four years is a long time, and without guidance on how we should be approaching it all, it’s all too easy for our college years to disappear and to be regretting later in life that we didn’t make the most of them.

These are the four things I wish someone had told me on day one.

1. The trick is to be curricular

“One of the secrets of a modern American college”, writes Mark Greif, one of my favourite essayists, “is that before undergraduates take up “extracurriculars,” or if they choose not to take up any (as I didn’t), studying is itself the passion and the activity. The challenge is to be curricular—to run through the course set by civilization up to one’s own time, and then exceed it.”

For all the talk of extracurricular life being the heart of university, that’s not the reason we’re here. It can seem strange to say, but the best way to transform your life while at college is to stick as closely as possible to your reading. (Obama did). To not only read the pages assigned, but to devour the books whole. To wake up early for no other reason than to get a seat by the window in the library and read the book from start to finish, mulling over every thought and comparing it to your own life and your own understanding of the world.

Going to college is like stepping foot into a room where the most important conversation of humanity is taking place. Perhaps unwittingly we’ve opened the door and walked through, but now inside, the best thing we can do is listen. Listen to every important thought ever put down by humanity, the disagreements between different thinkers across the ages, and judge the thoughts against our own lives.

If we’re “curricular” enough, by the end of college we should have built ourselves solid foundations upon which to shape our lives. We will have learned about love and death; how to waste a life; how to live simply; how to cope with loss; and so on for all topics that matter to us as humans— and our goal should be to find ourselves in our final year able for the first time to chime into the conversation with our own thoughts. Don’t rush it during the first few years—be content to recite what each author is saying in the conversation. Only in our final year should we take those first bold steps towards stating our own views, now that we know what has been said before.

2. We’re not here in order to get a job

And if you are, there’s something far more important you should be doing with your time.

Throughout your time at university various people will try to pressure you into thinking that the point of your time here is to get a job once you graduate. Perhaps some professors, instead of assigning an essay (which is simply a way for you to engage in that great conversation of humanity) will assign something like an infographic, because “that’s a skill employers want these days.” Perhaps your university’s career office will invite you to a meeting in which they’ll box you into a career path and encourage you to take classes related to the job you think you might want later in life. Maybe even your friends, as they start to worry about their own futures, will push you into majoring in something “practical”.

But the reality is that college is a remarkably inefficient way to get a job. That’s what all the discussion at the moment is about, with commentators lamenting the declining “return on investment” on a college degree; it gets more expensive, and it’s harder to get a job. Let’s be clear: college is not an investment. It is simply a purchase. What is it we are purchasing? Oh, nothing less than four years with which to become a real, thinking human being. It is the best purchase we will ever make, and maybe it will even come with a job at the end of it! But to think of college as being a “return on investment” before we’ve even begun will mean we look for all the wrong things while there, passing up the real value that an education offers us.

The moment college is thought of as an investment, it has become a bad one indeed, for in that thought you’ve precluded gaining the real thing that college offers.

The goal of college is to build solid foundations with which we can live the rest of our lives. It is to become a real human being, one who thinks, feels, and judges, using our capacities to the full in everything we do, from contributing in a job to building a healthy, happy family.

Always remember: you can build a career on these solid foundations of your life, but you cannot build the foundations of your life upon a career.

3. Try to discover the kind of life you want to live

“To be admitted”, says Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia, “you had to exude confidence about what Americans… call their life goals. And you had to demonstrate that you had a precise plan for achieving them. It was all bullshit. You know it, I know it.” Finally, someone said it.

Instead, Lilla argues, students should be “far less concerned with getting what they want than figuring out just what it is that’s worth wanting.” And that latter—figuring out what is worth wanting in life—is what a liberal education affords us.

Every book we ever read shows us different possible lives we could lead. Even something as dry and seemingly lifeless as an economics textbook can at least show us what life might be like as an economics professor. Literature is filled with characters, and if it does nothing else, it gives us the ability to empathise with different people, putting ourselves in their shoes, so to speak—wondering what their lives might be like, whether we might like to be them.

When we read books, Lilla argues,

“We are almost inevitably led to think, “What would it be like to live like this person, or that person? What would it be like to value what they value, pursue their goals, suffer their disappointments, experience their happiness?… You’ve been observing human nature in action, and have even begun to recognise distinct human types who represent radically opposed ways to live. So you’re now ready to start reasoning about which of these lives, if any, are worth pursuing, and which might be the best for you or for anyone.”

We can never try out a thousand different lives with the single life we have, so taking four years while at college to question all these different lives and decide on which one(s) might be for us is perhaps the most valuable time we will ever spend. There’s a reason that we go to university at this point in our lives, and that is because we need to figure out our definition of success now, before too much time has gotten away from us.

4. If you’re constantly stressed and too busy to sleep, you’re doing it wrong

So many of us seem to live in a state of latent exhaustion. The irony is that the exhaustion is a status symbol—“I’m just so busy, let’s get lunch sometime”, says the acquaintance, rushing off into the distance, not to be heard from until the next time you pass them outside class (I’m sure I’m guilty)—but the exhaustion cannot be truly admitted. To admit that the exhaustion is a problem is to admit weakness, and that’s not something that we who got into these colleges can easily do.

But with every all-nighter to finish a paper there comes a decreased chance that we’ll get out of college what we came here for. It isn’t good for you, and it isn’t good for anyone else. Less sleep = more stress. More stress = worse work. Worse work = less sleep + more stress. And so on. Negativity can start affecting everything and everyone around you, and we know that mental health on university campuses is a severe issue.

The reality is that professors are on our side. They don’t want us pulling all-nighters. They don’t want us struggling. Once we realise that they are in their jobs because they want to help us learn, to get out of college what we came for, assignments can be seen as opportunities instead of struggles. If you’re given an essay topic and have simply zero interest in it, or think you won’t learn anything from doing the work, go talk to your professor and propose a new topic. They’ll allow it. And once we’re doing work that we’re interested in, everything else can often fall into place—time management, sleep, thinking positively, and working out what kind of a life we’d like to lead after university.

Remember that to be busy is a choice; and to be busy without first having done the difficult work of discovering what one believes in and wishes to work towards is to have merely, in the words of one novelist, a sense of “motion without movement”, and, in the words of another, to strive for ends that may be “chimerical or hurtful.”

Don’t fall into that trap of exhaustion. Just because everyone around us is living like that doesn’t mean we need to. Be zen.

And if other people keep you up too late—get earplugs. (I don’t have that problem thanks to a heroic best friend who silences everyone coming into the suite after 11. Thanks as always, Maria!).