An Einstein quote that I disagree with is the following:
Much reading after a certain age diverts the mind from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking, just as the man who spends too much time in the theaters is apt to be content with living vicariously instead of living his own life.
It is the best known of various cautions against “intellectual greed.” I once interviewed at a university where there seemed to be a particularly strong fear of intellectual over-reach. Every faculty member I talked to had a word of caution about young researchers and “intellectual greed” — taking on too many, too big, or too wide-ranging a set of intellectual interests. If this is a sin — and it sort of sounds like one, which is why the biblical word “gluttony” seems more appropriate to me — I am certainly guilty. But if I am going to hell anyway, I might as well know why in a little more detail.
Einstein’s own take can actually be dismissed fairly quickly. He was speaking from the perspective of a particularly original guy in a field that especially rewarded, even demanded, originality at that particular time in history (I am pretty sure it was his originality that saved him from having to read too much, not the other way around). If you look at the work of people who actually study creativity (such as the books of Dean Simonton, who has written extensively on the subject) in broader ways, two things become clear:
- There is very systematic variation in the age of significant achievement in different fields, and the correlation is predictable. Historians and literary scholars achieve their greatest works later in life than mathematicians and physicists. Literature and Physics Nobel prizes also reflect this.
- There is a big difference between low-paradigm and high-paradigm fields of knowledge. Roughly, the latter are those (such as physics), where there is a lot of agreement about foundational ideas and basic methodologies. The former are those, such as political science, where 10 different scholars will give you 1o different answers if you ask them what the three most important ideas in their field are.
People study this quite a lot. I forget the reference, but it turns out, for instance, that in high-paradigm fields, peer reviewers are more likely to err on the side of caution and accept work that is potentially of low importance, but seems correct. In low-paradigm fields, when in doubt, peer-reviewers reject rather than accept.
What does this have to do with intellectual gluttony?
In certain fields, it takes a lot more reading and thinking through others’ contributions before you can make a credible one of your own. Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi smartly defines creativity as the relationship between an individual, a field and a “symbolic domain” and argues that good researchers internalize the standards of their fields, to the point where they know how work will be perceived even before others review it. Obviously it takes more time to develop that level of internalization in low-paradigm fields.
In other fields, you can get going after a relatively short time. In mathematics, you can find reputation-making problems that you can actually attack after just a couple of years of college. It is very unlikely that you will make a significant contribution to Shakespeare scholarship before 30. And you’ll read a lot more.
Which brings me to the question, once you know what your interests are, how much should you read? How much should you slow down your reading as you age? What is the most fertile ratio of reading to creating?
The answer can be tricky. As fields mature, and apparently unsolvable controversies start to dominate (such as has happened at the edge of physics, around superstring theory), a high-paradigm field can become low-paradigm. Subfields can differ: “systems engineering” is lower-paradigm than electrical or mechanical engineering.
But Einstein is right about one thing: the “living vicariously” part. That, rather than sheer quantity of reading, is actually the critical part. Depending on what problem you are trying to understand or solve, your reading may take you the rest of your life, or be done in two years. But how you read can determine whether you become a pedantic bore who contributes nothing, or somebody who makes new contributions.
The dangerous, mind-freezing approach to reading has a very good word to describe it: erudition. My biggest fear is that I might one day become erudite. Somebody who reads and collects knowledge for the hell of it, rather than with interesting and specific questions and unknowns driving the reading. Too much reading is only “too much” if it teeters towards erudition.
For me, the struggle is endless. My interests tend towards questions which are of the “100 years of reading” variety, whether it is a question in world history I am thinking about, or technology/mathematics. So I am constantly on guard against erudition. One of the best defenses is to always start all your intellectual journeys with very small questions, growing them into big, ambitious, projects.
If you ask “What is the fate of human civilization,” you are doomed to erudition. If, on the other hand, you ask, “Why did Obama pick that particular phrase to make that point in his speech on healthcare,” typically you will go on a creative, active-mind journey. Even if takes you through thousands of years of world history, that question will keep you intellectually alive in a way the first question will not.
(I’ll be out of town when this post is published, so I may be a day or two late in responding to comments).