Insights on what makes a good life from Harvard's groundbreaking 75-study of human happiness, Ursula K. Le Guin on power, freedom, and how storytelling expands our scope of the possible, Maurice Sendak's forgotten philosophical children's book, Hermann Hesse on the three types of readers, and more.

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WelcomeHello, Candyce Ossefort-Russell! If you missed last week's edition – Alain de Botton on what makes a good communicator, a taxonomy of relationships to reclaim friendship, the greatest Moth story ever told, and more – you can catch up right here. If you're enjoying my newsletter, please consider supporting this labor of love with a donation – I spend countless hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.

Ursula K. Le Guin on Power, Oppression, Freedom, and How Imaginative Storytelling Expands Our Scope of the Possible

“We must always take sides,” Elie Wiesel urged in his spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” And yet part of the human tragedy is that despite our best intentions and our most ardent ideals, we often lull ourselves into neutrality in the face of injustice — be it out of fear for our own stability, or lack of confidence in our ability to make a difference, or that most poisonous foible of the soul, the two-headed snake of cynicism and apathy. How, then, do we unmoor ourselves from a passivity we so masterfully rationalize, remember that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and rise to that awareness with moral courage and imagination?

That’s what Ursula K. Le Guin (b. October 21, 1929) examines in one of the many magnificent pieces in The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (public library) — that trove of her clear-headed, bright-hearted wisdom on subjects as eclectic and essential as gender, the sacredness of public libraries, the magic of real human conversation, and what beauty really means.

Ursula K. Le Guin by Benjamin Reed

In an ennobling and pleasurably unnerving essay titled “A War Without End,” which Le Guin describes as “some thoughts, written down at intervals, about oppression, revolution, and imagination,” she writes:

My country came together in one revolution and was nearly broken by another.

The first revolution was a protest against galling, stupid, but relatively mild social and economic exploitation. It was almost uniquely successful.

Many of those who made the first revolution practiced the most extreme form of economic exploitation and social oppression: they were slave owners.

The second American revolution, the Civil War, was an attempt to preserve slavery. It was partially successful. The institution was abolished, but the mind of the master and the mind of the slave still think a good many of the thoughts of America.

When these dominant narratives become so deeply embedded in a society, Le Guin suggests, even those whom they oppress end up internalizing them. (I think of James Baldwin, who observed in his terrific conversation with Nikki Giovanni: “What the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself. You become a collaborator, an accomplice of your own murderers, because you believe the same things they do.”)

Phillis Wheatley

In turning to the subject of resistance to oppression, Le Guin invokes the memorable words of the poet and onetime slave Phillis Wheatley, who wrote in 1774: “In every human Breast, God has implanted a principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance.” Le Guin considers the discomfiting paradox at the heart of this abiding truth:

All that is good in the institutions and politics of my country rests on it.

And yet I see that though we love freedom we are mostly patient of oppression, and even refuse deliverance.

I see a danger in insisting that our love of freedom always outweighs whatever force or inertia keeps us from resisting oppression and seeking deliverance.

If I deny that strong, intelligent, capable people will and do accept oppression, I’m identifying the oppressed as weak, stupid, and inept.

If it were true that superior people refuse to be treated as inferiors, it would follow that those low in the social order are truly inferior, since, if they were superior, they’d protest; since they accept an inferior position, they are inferior. This is the comfortably tautological argument of the slave owner, the social reactionary, the racist, and the misogynist.

In a counterpoint to Kierkegaard’s ideas about the power of the minority, Le Guin reality-checks the distribution of power throughout human history:

The ruling class is always small, the lower orders large, even in a caste society. The poor always vastly outnumber the rich. The powerful are fewer than those they hold power over. Adult men hold superior status in almost all societies, though they are always outnumbered by women and children. Governments and religions sanction and uphold inequality, social rank, gender rank, and privilege, wholly or selectively.

Most people, in most places, in most times, are of inferior status.

And most people, even now, even in “the free world,” even in “the home of the free,” consider this state of affairs, or certain elements of it, as natural, necessary, and unchangeable. They hold it to be the way it has always been and therefore the way it must be. This may be conviction or it may be ignorance; often it is both. Over the centuries, most people of inferior status have had no way of knowing that any other way of ordering society has existed or could exist — that change is possible. Only those of superior status have ever known enough to know that; and it is their power and privilege that would be at stake if the order of things were changed.

But beyond the truism that those in power are better equipped to stay in power, Le Guin argues that there is a larger failure of moral imagination keeping oppressive power structures in place. She writes:

We have good reason to be cautious, to be quiet, not to rock the boat. A lot of peace and comfort is at stake. The mental and moral shift from denial of injustice to consciousness of injustice is often made at very high cost.


The last words of the Mahabharata are, “By no means can I attain a goal beyond my reach.” It is likely that justice, a human idea, is a goal beyond human reach. We’re good at inventing things that can’t exist.

Maybe freedom cannot be attained through human institutions but must remain a quality of the mind or spirit not dependent on circumstances, a gift of grace… My problem with it is that its devaluation of work and circumstance encourages institutional injustices which make the gift of grace inaccessible. A two-year-old child who dies of starvation or a beating or a firebombing has not been granted access to freedom, nor any gift of grace, in any sense in which I can understand the words. We can attain by our own efforts only an imperfect justice, a limited freedom. Better than none. Let us hold fast to that principle, the love of Freedom, of which the freed slave, the poet, spoke.

Echoing Susan Sontag’s assertion that “courage is as contagious as fear,” Le Guin considers the irreversible Rube Goldberg machine of awareness and action through which injustice is confronted and countered:

The shift from denial of injustice to recognition of injustice can’t be unmade. What your eyes have seen they have seen. Once you see the injustice, you can never again in good faith deny the oppression and defend the oppressor. What was loyalty is now betrayal. From now on, if you don’t resist, you collude. But there is a middle ground between defense and attack, a ground of flexible resistance, a space opened for change. It is not an easy place to find or live in.

Illustration from The Harvey Milk Story, a picture-book biography of the slain LGBT rights pioneer

Reflecting on Audre Lord’s assertion that one can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools, which Le Guin considers a “rich and dangerous” metaphor, she writes:

Power not only corrupts, it addicts. Work becomes destruction. Nothing is built. Societies change with and without violence. Reinvention is possible. Building is possible. What tools have we to build with except hammers, nails, saws — education, learning to think, learning skills?

In a sentiment that calls to mind the great cellist Pau Casals’s wonderful notion of making this world worthy of its children, Le Guin adds:

Are there indeed tools that have not been invented, which we must invent in order to build the house we want our children to live in? Can we go on from what we know now, or does what we know now keep us from learning what we need to know? To learn what people of color, the women, the poor, have to teach, to learn the knowledge we need, must we unlearn all the knowledge of the whites, the men, the powerful?

The most powerful such tool, Le Guin argues, is the imagination — the ability and willingness to imagine alternatives to reality as we know it, which is always the first step toward making different and better realities possible. She points to storytelling as the most powerful use of the imagination in expanding our scope of the possible:

Utopia, and Dystopia, are intellectual places. I write from passion and playfulness. My stories are neither dire warnings nor blueprints for what we ought to do. Most of them, I think, are comedies of human manners, reminders of the infinite variety of ways in which we always come back to pretty much the same place, and celebrations of that infinite variety by the invention of still more alternatives and possibilities.


To me the important thing is not to offer any specific hope of betterment but, by offering an imagined but persuasive alternative reality, to dislodge my mind, and so the reader’s mind, from the lazy, timorous habit of thinking that the way we live now is the only way people can live. It is that inertia that allows the institutions of injustice to continue unquestioned.

Fantasy and science fiction in their very conception offer alternatives to the reader’s present, actual world. Young people in general welcome this kind of story because in their vigor and eagerness for experience they welcome alternatives, possibilities, change. Having come to fear even the imagination of true change, many adults refuse all imaginative literature, priding themselves on seeing nothing beyond what they already know, or think they know.

In a sentiment evocative of Susan Sontag’s beautiful thoughts on storytelling and what it means to be a moral human being, Le Guin considers the task of imaginative storytelling and its ultimate reward:

The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary. Having that real though limited power to put established institutions into question, imaginative literature has also the responsibility of power. The storyteller is the truthteller.


We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom. We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly indispensable The Wave in the Mind, which is titled after Virginia Woolf’s metaphor for consciousness and which remains one of the most redemptive and rereadable books I’ve ever encountered, with Albert Camus on cultivating strength of character, Rebecca Solnit on the grounds for hope in our moral imagination, and Neil Gaiman on how stories change us, then revisit Le Guin’s advice on writing.

What Makes a Good Life: Revelatory Learnings from Harvard’s 75-Year Study of Human Happiness

“The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge,” Bertrand Russell wrote in his 1925 treatise on the nature of the good life and how we limit our happiness. For the whole of human history up to that point, such questions had been left entirely to his ilk — the philosophers — and perhaps to the occasional poet.

By the following decade, a team of visionary researchers at Harvard had enlisted the tools of science in wresting tangible, measurable, actionable answers to this perennial question of the good life. So began the Study of Adult Development at the Harvard Medical School, better known as the Grant Study — the longest-running study of human happiness. Beginning in 1938 as a counterpoint to the disease model of medicine, the ongoing research set out to illuminate the conditions that enhance wellbeing by following the lives of 268 healthy sophomores from the Harvard classes between 1939 and 1944. It was a project revolutionary in both ambition and impact, nothing like it done before or since.

For some necessary perspective on medicine in the 1930s: Having not yet uncovered the structure of DNA, we knew close to nothing about genetics; mental health was a fringe concern of the profession, with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders still two decades away; the microbiome was an inconceivable flight of fancy. Little progress had been made since Walt Whitman’s prescient case for the grossly underserved human factors in healthcare and the question of what makes for a good life was cautiously left to philosophy. It’s hard for the modern mind to grasp just how daring it was for physicians to attempt to address it.

But that’s precisely what the Harvard team did. There are, of course, glaring limitations to the study — ones that tell the lamentable story of our cultural history: the original subjects were privileged white men. Nonetheless, the findings furnish invaluable insight into the core dimensions of human happiness and life satisfaction: who lives to ninety and why, what predicts self-actualization and career success, how the interplay of nature and nurture shapes who we become.

In this illuminating TED talk, Harvard psychologist and Grant Study director Robert Waldinger — the latest of four generations of scientists working on the project — shares what this unprecedented study has revealed, with the unflinching solidity of 75 years of data, about the building blocks of happiness, longevity, and the meaningful life.

The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier.

For a deeper dive into the significance and legacy of the Grant Study project, see the revelatory book Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study (public library) by Harvard psychologist George E. Vaillant — Waldinger’s predecessor, who spent thirty years as director of this revolutionary study — then revisit his Harvard peer Daniel Gilbert on how our present illusions hinder our future happiness and pioneering immunologist Esther Sternberg on how our relationships affect our immune system.

Kenny’s Window: Maurice Sendak’s Forgotten Philosophical Children’s Book About Love, Loneliness, and Knowing What You Really Want

“I don’t write for children,” Maurice Sendak (June 10, 1928–May 8, 2012) told Stephen Colbert in his last on-camera appearance. “I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” Having fallen in love with his work as an adult myself — none of it made it past the Iron Curtain and into the Bulgaria of my childhood — I’ve come to appreciate this sentiment all the more deeply. Sendak was indeed a storyteller who, while enchanting children, very much embodied E.B. White’s dictum that “anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time” — instead, he wrote up to them and made an art of naming what is dark and difficult, then enveloping it in hope.

It’s a craft he began honing in the largely forgotten 1956 masterpiece Kenny’s Window (public library) — his first and, in many ways, most directly philosophical children’s book, written and illustrated when Sendak was only twenty-eight.

Published seven years before Where the Wild Things Are turned him into a cultural icon, this was Sendak’s debut as a storyteller. He was yet to encounter William Blake, who would become his greatest influence. Although he had previously illustrated children’s books by other authors — including the immeasurably wonderful Open House for Butterflies and I’ll Be You and You Be Me by Ruth Krauss, one of the finest children’s storytellers of all time — this was Sendak’s serenade to his own becoming, a creative homecoming into his own voice as an artist of word and image.

Befittingly, he dedicated the book to his parents, his psychiatrist, and Ursula Nordstrom — his editor, friend, confidante, and greatest champion, whose unflinching and wholehearted support had cultivated his creative genius and sustained him through his darkest moments as an insecure young artist.

The story begins with little Kenny, who awakens from a revelatory dream — a trope for exploring existential questions that a number of great thinkers and storytellers have in common, from Dostoyevsky’s dreamsome meditation on the meaning of life to Margaret Mead’s nocturnal revelation to Neil Gaiman’s philosophical dream.

In the middle of a dream, Kenny woke up. And he remembered a garden.

“I saw a garden in my dream,” thought Kenny, “and a tree.”

There was a tree covered white with blossoms. And above the tree shone the sun and the moon side by side. Half the garden was filled with yellow morning and the other with dark green night.

“There was something else in my dream,” thought Kenny, and he tried to remember.

“A train,” he cried, “and a rooster with four feet and he gave me something.”

There was a train puffin its way through the garden and in the caboose sat a rooster with four feet and he gave Kenny a piece of paper.

“Here,” said the rooster, “are seven questions and you must find all the answers.”

“If I do,” asked Kenny, “may I come and live in the garden?”

But before the rooster could answer, the dream ended.

Upon awaking, Kenny remains enchanted by the magical garden of coexistent dualities and wonders whether he could indeed live there if he answers the rooster’s questions — but he realizes that he had forgotten them in the dream. Closing his eyes, he wills his way back to sleep, hoping to find them. What unfolds is a series of seven dreamsome vignettes, each a quest to answer one of the questions. Although populated by fantastical creatures — a horse on the roof, a talking dog, two prophetic toy soldiers — Kenny’s nocturnal odysseys explore various facets of loneliness and love, those very real fixtures of childhood and the lifelong experience of being human.

The second question — “What is an only goat? — offers an especially potent testament to Sendak’s uncommon genius for bearing witness to and assuaging the deepest vulnerabilities of the human heart. A poignant parable calling to mind the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn’s assertion that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” it offers a reminder that the tighter we cling to a template of what love is, the lonelier we render both the object of our love and ourselves.

Kenny left a note on the kitchen table. It said: Dear mama, I’m going to Switzerland. Back soon, Kenny.

The valleys of Switzerland were deep in wild flowers, and the mountains peeked out through the mist.
Kenny bought a ticket and took a seat in a little train that climbed straight up the side of a mountain.

“Look,” said a fat man, pointing out of the train window, “a waterfall!”

Everybody looked and said surprised things and took snapshot, click-click. But Kenny didn’t look. He

“Look, mama,” said a little girl with yellow hair, “snow!”

“Ah!” said everybody. Click-click.

“Snow is very pretty”, thought Kenny, “but it is not what I came to see.”

And he didn’t look.

When the little train came to the top of the mountain, Kenny bought a chocolate bar and went out to look for a goat. He stood in a little patch of snow and looked down into the misty valley. He listened to the faraway bells that echoed softly against the grassy-thick mountain walls.

“How beautiful,” thought Kenny, “but,” and he sighed, “they are only cowbells and I am looking for a goat.”

Kenny stepped carefully down the mountain picking, along the way, a bouquet of wild flowers: yellow trolls, blue gentians and pink mountain roses. The path became less steep and the air smelled strong of animals. Kenny wrinkled his nose. He soon came to a village that had only four houses and a great deal of mud.

“My goat could not live here,” said Kenny, burying his nose in the bouquet of wild flowers. He was about to turn back, when behind one of the houses, stepped a little white-bearded animal.

“A goat!” cried Kenny, and he arranged the wild flowers to look as pretty as they could. Then he putted down his hair, straightened his tic and scratched some mud off his new brown shots. The white goat watched Kenny, her little jaw swinging sideways as she chewed some grass.

Kenny stood as straight as he could and said in a loud voice, “I have come all the way from America to make you my only goat.”

The white goat stepped closer, eyeing the bouquet of flowers in Kenny’s hand.

These are for you,” said Kenny and he held out the flower for the goat to smell.

“My favorite kind,” said the white goat. “Thank you.” And she nibbled at the yellow trolls.

“What is an only goat?” she asked.

“An only goat,” said Kenny, “is the goat I love,”

“How do you love me?” asked the goat.

“I love you better than the waterfall,” said Kenny, “and the snowy mountains and even the cowbells.”

“Ah,” sighed the white goat, and she gobbled up the blue gentians.

“When will you stop loving me?” she asked. Bits of blue gentian spatted her white beard.

“Never!” said Kenny.

“Never,” said the white goat, “is a very long time.”

And she sniffed at the pink mountain roses.

“Will you feed me yellow trolls, blue gentians and pink mountain roses in America?”

“No,” Kenny answered, “but there are buttercups and black-eyed Susans in my back yard.

“Can I stand on a mountaintop in America, and listen to the cowbells?”

“No,” Kenny answered, “but you can sit on the roof of my house and listen to the beep-beep of the automobiles as they go rushing by.”

“Can I lie in the mud in America?”

“No,” Kenny answered, “my goat must be pretty and clean and wear a silver bell around her neck.”

The white goat looked sadly up at Kenny. “An only goat is a lonely goat,” she said.

But we will play together,” cried Kenny, “and tell each other funny stories.”

“I don’t know any funny stories,” said the white goat.

“Not even one?”

“No,” said the goat.

“Then perhaps—,” began Kenny.

“Perhaps what?” asked the white goat.

“—you are not my only goat,” he finished sadly.

“That’s true,” said she, chewing up the last rose, “you have made a mistake.”

Kenny took the chocolate bar from his pocket.

“This is for you,” he said.

“My favorite candy,” said the goat, gobbling it up in one bite. “And I hope you find your only goat.”

“Thank you,” said Kenny, and he went back up the mountain. He bought a ticket and took a seat on the little train that went straight down the side of the mountain.

From the window he saw the lovely white snow and his heart beat fast. He saw the great tumbling waterfall and he was filled with a happy longing to be home. When the train came to the station, Kenny sent a telegram. It said:

Dear mama — coming home — your only boy — Kenny.

The fifth question — “What is a very narrow escape?” — turns to another facet of this vulnerable-making negotiation between loneliness and love.

One morning, Kenny almost fell off the side of the bed.

“What are you trying to do?” asked Baby, his dog.

“Almost fall off the side of the bed,” said Kenny. “But not let myself just in time.”

“THAT was a narrow escape!” said Baby.

“What’s a narrow escape?” asked Kenny.

“Almost falling off the side of the bed,” answered Baby.

“Sometimes,” said Kenny, “I hold my breath for as long as I can to see what it’s like. Is that a narrow
escape too?”

“Be careful,” said Baby, “or you’ll have a VERY narrow escape.”

“Have you ever had one?” asked Kenny.

“Yes,” said Baby, and she shivered in memory of it.

“What happened?” asked Kenny eagerly.

Baby curled up in Kenny’s lap. “For a whole after­noon,” she whispered, “I pretended I was an elephant. But I couldn’t sleep because I was too big to fit under your bed. I couldn’t eat because elephants don’t like hamburger. And I couldn’t chew my favorite bone because my long nose kept getting in the way. And most of all, I was afraid you’d stop loving me. I thought, ‘Kenny has lots of love for a little dog, but does he have enough for an elephant?’”

“Poor Baby,” said Kenny softly, and he rubbed her back.

“And just before suppertime,” continued Baby, “I stopped pretending and it was just in time. I was so hungry. And do you know what I said to myself?”

“Yes!” shouted Kenny. “You said, THAT was a VERY narrow escape!’”

“Right,” answered Baby, and with all the talking and back rubbing, she fell asleep in Kenny’s lap.

In his dream-encounter with the seventh question, Kenny is visited by the rooster once more, who goes on to grill the boy in a rapid-fire session of question-and-answer. “What is an only goat?” the rooster demands, and Kenny volleys back, “a lonely goat”; “What is a very narrow escape?” “When somebody almost stops loving you.” On and on they go, question by question, until the rooster poses the final one.

“Do you always want what you think you want?”

Kenny thought for as long as he could. “I think I don’t know,” he said sadly.

“Think hard,” said the rooster.

Kenny thought hard and then smiled.

“I know,” he said.

“What?” asked the rooster eagerly.

“I thought I wanted to live in the garden with the moon on one side and the sun on the other, but I really don’t.”

“You’ve answered all the questions,” the rooster shouted, “and you can have whatever you want.”

“I wish,” Kenny said slowly, “—I wish I had a horse, and a ship with an extra room for a friend.”

“You can have them,” said the rooster.

“When?” cried Kenny. “Where are they?”

“There,” said the rooster, pointing out the window. Kenny pressed his nose against the glass.

“Across the street?” he asked.

“Further than that,” said the rooster. Kenny stood on tip-toe.

“I can’t see any further than that,” he shouted.

The rooster hopped on Kenny’s shoulder.

“I see them,” he whispered, “past the houses, over the bridge, near a mountain on the edge of the ocean.”

“that’s too far,” said Kenny and he looked away.

“But you’er halfway there,” the rooster said.

In the dark, Kenny’s eyes grew big. “How did I get so far?” he asked.

“You made a wish,” said the rooster, “and a wish is halfway to wherever you want to go.”

Kenny’s Window is a tender and immensely thoughtful gem in its entirety. Complement it with Sendak’s rarest and most formative art, his wisdom on art, storytelling, and life from the 1971 class he taught at Yale, and his little-known and lovely posters celebrating libraries and the joy of reading, then join me in supporting the wonderful Rosenbach Museum & Library, which Sendak entrusted with his legacy.

Hermann Hesse on the Three Types of Readers and Why the Most Transcendent Form of Reading Is Non-reading

Categories are how we navigate the world, for better or for worse — this impulse toward organization helps us (to borrow Umberto Eco’s wonderful phrase) make infinity comprehensible, but its perilous flipside is the seedbed of stereotypes.

Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962) placed this paradoxical nature of categories at the heart of his taxonomy of the three types of readers — a sort of fluid hierarchy of reading modes, which he outlined in an altogether magnificent 1920 essay titled “On Reading Books.” It was later included in My Belief: Essays on Life and Art (public library) — the terrific Hesse anthology that gave us the beloved writer and Nobel laureate on why the book will never lose its magic.

From ancient mythology to modern psychology, Hesse notes, the human experience is strewn with such taxonomies of character. He writes:

We have an inborn tendency to establish types in our minds and to divide mankind according to them. [But] however advantageous and revealing such categories may be, no matter whether they spring from purely personal experience or from attempting a scientific establishment of types, at times it is a good and fruitful exercise to take a cross section of experience in another way and discover that each person bears traces of every type within himself and that diverse characters and temperaments can be found as alternating characteristics within a single individual.

There are, Hesse argues, such distinct temperaments when it comes to our personality as readers:

Since you may take a completely different attitude toward anything in the world, so you may toward the book.

Half a century before E.B. White proclaimed that children are “the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth,” Hesse offers a hierarchical taxonomy predicated on the same sentiment. He outlines three key types, which can similarly coexist within a single reader over the course of a lifetime, beginning with the naïve reader — the reader who experiences a book merely as content, be it intellectual or aesthetic:

Everyone reads naïvely at times. This reader consumes a book as one consumes food, he eats and drinks to satiety, he is simply a taker, be he a boy with a book about Indians, a servant girl with a novel about countesses, or a student with Schopenhauer. This kind of reader is not related to a book as one person is to another but rather as a horse to his manager or perhaps as a horse to his driver: the book leads, the reader follows. The substance is taken objectively, accepted as reality. But the substance is only one consideration! There are also highly educated, very refined readers, especially of belles letters, who belong entirely to the class of the naïve… What the material, setting, and action are to simple souls, the art, language education, and intellectuality of the writer are to these cultivated readers.


This kind of reader assumes in an uncomplicated way that a book is there simply and solely to be read faithfully and attentively and to be judged according to its content or its form. Just as a loaf of bread is there to be eaten and a bed to be slept in.

He then turns to the second type of reader, which one might call (though Hesse does not provide a concrete term) the imaginative investigator — a reader endowed with childlike wonderment, who sees past the superficialities of content to plumb the depths of the writer’s creative impulse:

If one follows one’s nature and not one’s education one becomes a child again and begins to play with things; the bread becomes a mountain to bore tunnels into, and the bed a cave, a garden, a snow field. Something of this child-likeness, this genius for play, is exhibited by the second type of reader. This reader treasures neither the substance nor the form of a book as its single most important value. He knows, in the way children know, that every object can have ten or a hundred meanings for the mind. He can, for example, watch a poet or philosopher struggling to persuade himself and this reader of his interpretation and evaluation of things, and he can smile because he sees in the apparent choice and freedom of the poet simply compulsion and passivity. This reader is already so far advanced that he knows what professors of literature and literary critics are mostly completely ignorant of: the there is no such thing as a free choice of material or form.


From this point of view the so-called aesthetic values almost disappear, and it can be precisely the writer’s mishaps and uncertainties that furnish much the greatest charm and value. For this reader follows the poet not the way a horse obeys his driver but the way a hunter follows his prey, and a glimpse suddenly gained into what lies beyond the apparent freedom of the poet, into the poet’s compulsion and passivity, can enchant him more than all the elegance of good technique and cultivated style.

Art by Maurice Sendak for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves

Next comes the final type of reader, who is really a non-reader but rather a dreamer and interpreter:

The third and last type of reader … is apparently the exact reverse of what is generally called a “good” reader. He is so completely an individual, so very much himself, that he confronts his reading matter with complete freedom. He wishes neither to educate nor to entertain himself, he uses a book exactly like any other object in the world, for him it is simply a point of departure and a stimulus. Essentially it makes no difference to him what he reads. He does not need a philosopher in order to learn from him, to adopt his teaching, or to attack or criticize him. He does not read a poet to accept his interpretation of the world; he interprets it for himself. He is, if you like, completely a child. He plays with everything — and from one point of view there is nothing more fruitful and rewarding than to play with everything. If this reader finds a beautiful sentence in a book, a truth, a word of wisdom, he begins by experimentally turning it upside down.

In a sentiment which Nobel-winning physicist Frank Wilczek would come to echo nearly a century later in his assertion that “you can recognize a deep truth by the feature that its opposite is also a deep truth,” Hesse adds:

[This reader] has known for a long time that for each truth the opposite also is true. He has known for a long time that every intellectual point of view is a pole to which an equally valid antipole exists. He is a child insofar as he puts a high value on associative thinking, but he knows the other sort as well.

But what grants this reader her or his superiority over the other types is, above all, a trained capacity for associative thinking that turns the reading material into a springboard for indiscriminate curiosity from which to leap far beyond the particular substance of the particular book. (A quarter century later, the inventor Vannevar Bush would describe the same psychological orientation in his prescient vision for the type of person who would triumph in the Information Age — the person who can “find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.”) Hesse writes:

This reader is able, or rather each one of us is able, at the hour in which he is at this stage, to read whatever he likes, a novel or grammar, a railroad timetable, a galley proof from the printer. At the hour when our imagination and our ability to associate are at their height, we really no longer read what is printed on the paper but swim in a stream of impulses and inspirations that reach us from what we are reading. They may come out of the text, they may simply emerge from the type face. An advertisement in a newspaper can become a revelation; the most exhilarating, the most affirmative thoughts can spring from a completely irrelevant word if one turns it about, playing with its letters as with a jigsaw puzzle. In this stage one can read the story of Little Read Riding Hood as a cosmogony or philosophy, or as a flowery erotic poem. Or one can read the label “Colorado maduro” on a box of cigars, play with the words, letters, and sounds, and thereby take a tour through the hundred kingdoms of knowledge, memory, and thought.

Art by Maurice Sendak for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves

Hesse addresses the potential protestation that using a book as the trigger for a Rube Goldberg machine of interpretive associations is not “reading” at all — for is it really reading to devour “a page of Goethe unconcerned about Goethe’s intentions and meanings”? The objector, he imagines, would accuse this reading mode of being “the lowest, most childish and barbaric” of all. The objection, he concedes, is a valid one. And yet it contains within its validity the very point — each mode of reading is necessary for a full life, but it is insufficient in and of itself. “It must be emphasized that no one of us need belong permanently to any one of these types,” he cautions. In a passage that calls to mind Umberto Eco’s notion of the antilibrary, Hesse writes:

The reader at the their stage is no longer a reader. The person who remained there permanently would soon not read at all, for the design in a rug or the arrangement of the stones in a wall would be of exactly as great a value to him as the most beautiful page full of the best-arranged letters. The one book for him would be a page with the letters of the alphabet.

So be it: the reader at the last stage is really no longer a reader at all, he doesn’t give a hoot about Goethe, he doesn’t read Shakespeare. The reader in the last stage simply doesn’t read any more. Why books? Has he not the entire world within himself?

Half a century before Agnes Martin’s memorable observation that “we all have the same inner life [but] the artist has to recognize what it is,” Hesse adds:

Whoever remained permanently at this stage would not read any more, but no one does remain permanently at this stage. But whoever is not acquainted with this stage is a poor, an immature reader. He does not know that all the poetry and all the philosophy in the world lie within him too, that he greatest poet drew from no other source than the one each of us has within his own being. For just once in your life remain for an hour, a day at the third stage, the stage of not-reading-any-more. You will thereafter (it’s so easy to slip back) be that much better a reader, that much better a listener and interpreter of everything written. Stand just once at the stage where the stone by the road means as much to you as Goethe and Tolstoy, you will thereafter gain from Goethe, Tolstoy, and all poets infinitely more value, more sap and honey, more affirmation of life and of yourself than ever before. For the works of Goethe are not Goethe and the volumes of Dostoevsky are not Dostoevsky, they are only an attempt, a dubious and never successful attempt, to conjure up the many-voiced multitudinous world of which he was the central point.

Hesse likens this type of reading to a dream, or perhaps to what Stephen King has termed “creative sleep.” Dreaming transmogrifies the raw material of reality, gathered in our waking life, into fanciful creations of the consciousness set free from the constraints of reality. Similarly, this type of reading uses the actual text on the page as raw material for the imaginative meanderings of the mind. Hesse writes:

A dream is the opening through which you see into the content of your soul, and this content is the world, no more and no less than the world, the whole world from your birth up to today, from Homer to Heinrich Mann, from Japan to Gibraltar, from Sirius to the Earth, from Red Riding Hood to Bergson. — And to the extent that your attempt to write down your dream is related to the world that embraces that dream, so the work of an author is related to what he tired to say.


Without having recognized this, be it only a single time, in all its infinite fullness and inexhaustible significance, you stand handicapped before every poet and thinker, you take for the whole what is a small part, you believe in interpretations that barely touch the surface.


The third stage at which you are most yourself will put an end to your reading, will dissolve poetry, will dissolve art, will dissolve world history. And yet unless you intuitively know this stage, you will never read any book, any science or art except as a schoolboy reads his grammar.

Hesse’s My Belief, it bears repeating, is a transcendent read in its entirety. Complement this particular fragment with Virginia Woolf on how to read a book, Patti Smith on the two types of masterpieces, C.S. Lewis on why we read, and a very old Robert Graves’s subversive celebration of how books transform us, illustrated by a very young Maurice Sendak.


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