Aug 27, 2020

Creative Reading

A little bit ago, I spent a weekend by a lake. We rented a cabin. I passed two days cooking and soaking in nature’s abundant stimulus. Before we left for home, I sat by the lake one last time, opened up a dense book,01 and started slowly chewing through the arguments.

Strangely, I felt an immense rush of joy as my mind began to twist the ideas into its own conceptual web. It was fun in a loosely structured but free-wheeling kind of way. The book gave some scaffolding, but you were left to expound and theorize on your own. Maybe like climbing a tree with your brain.

The best term I can think of for this is creative reading.02

This got me thinking.

At least here in the Pacific northwest, we have a piece of cultural wisdom that getting outside into nature is good for you. Nobody really talks about why, we just value it, and we make each other do it. Speaking for myself, I just accept that going into nature does intangible but beneficial things to the mind.03 The fabric of reality smells nicer afterwards.

Now, I had this delightful experience of creative reading I’d either forgotten about or didn’t realize existed. Might this also have intangible but significant value? And it’s just that nobody in my cultural proximity talks about it?

Was it just relaxation → stimulation?

Being in nature and then creative reading was lovely in a way that being in nature and returning to work isn’t. Not that work isn’t good. But this wasn’t the same kind of “oh I went hiking and now I feel refreshed for work” idea. The way I conceive of work is all about efficiency.04 The perfect is the enemy of the good. Launch then iterate. Minimum viable product. Skim to get the main idea. Don’t spend forever on it. This wasn’t like that at all.

OK, was it just letting thoughts bounce around?

It also wasn’t really like meditating, in which—from my limited understanding—mind and experience take central roles. Instead, this process was guided by the book. But the book gave many jumping off points to stew on and elaborate on your own.

OK, was it just–

I think what really happened was that by calming my brain down, I was ready to read in a different mode. Slowly, carefully, expansively. The relaxation had served as priming.

Normally, after work and on weekends, I crave activities that stimulate my brain with an efficiency that mirrors work. The main ingredients are action, plot, and conversation. No way is creative reading going to make it in.

I wonder if we’re too preoccupied with thinking as a way of finding truth, when there may be significant value to the process of thinking itself. I don’t mean fake news and conspiracy theories, where you throw out truth but keep the narrative. But I also don’t mean logic puzzles, where you throw out narrative but keep truth.

Maybe what I’m trying to get at is the mixture of how much your thinking is guided. I find when I consume novels, my thinking is heavily guided. Now, novels can be immensely enriching and pleasurable. I’m not trying to make a value judgment here. Just that there’s a looser way words can guide your thoughts.

Maybe the closest thing that tries to get you to do this is poetry. I could imagine that religious texts might do the same. But bizarrely, aggressively dense academic books also seem to fill this niche.

I’ve had a hard time clicking with poetry because I can’t figure out what the hell is going on. Maybe I should try again.


  1. It was a book of Niklas Luhmann’s. I’ve complained about Luhmann because his prose is dense and enigmatic. I stand by this (I mean you’d hope so, I wrote it like a week ago) because I think his goal was science and not art. However, I think you can actually enjoy it as art. Just get in a relaxed mood and don’t worry about getting actual ideas or truth out of the writing. Sort of like savory linguistic chewing gum. ↩︎

  2. Brief Googling reveals others may have already coined “creative reading.” But fear not: I have no idea what they meant by it and am not going to find out. ↩︎

  3. Going into nature sometimes does good things to the body, too, though damn if my hiking boots haven’t been blistering the pants off my feet. ↩︎

  4. Skipping aside here where we discuss the fact that I conceptualize work as principally demanding efficiency, relate this to my personal values, tendencies, American culture, etc etc etc. ↩︎