13 Reading Tips From Theodore Roosevelt
In April 1915, former president Theodore Roosevelt penned a piece for Ladies Home Journal titled “The Books That I Read and When and How I Do My Reading.” In it, he notes that “it would be impossible to try to enumerate all the books I read, or even all the kinds”—which is understandable, considering he typically read around a book a day and was often reading several books at a time.
Still, Roosevelt recommends plenty of books in the piece, name drops a few titles he’s not so crazy about, and doles out tons of reading tips in the process. Here are a few of them.
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1. Start reading young.
“Fathers and mothers who are wise,” Roosevelt wrote, “can train their children first to practice, and soon to like, the sustained mental application necessary to enjoy good books.” He also advised that parents have their children learn a second language, “so that at least one other great literature, in addition to our own noble English literature, shall be open to him or her.” On both counts, Roosevelt is drawing from his own experience: Confined to the indoors as a young boy because of his asthma, he read constantly. He also read in German, French, Italian, and Latin (although he didn’t enjoy reading in Latin; he called it drudgery).
2. Don’t force yourself to read what you don’t like.
“The reader’s personal and individual taste must be the guiding factor” when choosing a book, Roosevelt wrote. “I like hunting books and books of exploration and adventure. I do not ask anyone else to like them.”
Roosevelt notes that “the equation of personal taste is as powerful in reading as in eating; and within certain broad limits the matter is merely one of individual preference, having nothing to do with the quality either of the book or of the reader’s mind.”
He wrote that he likes “apples, pears, oranges, pineapples, and peaches. I dislike bananas, alligator pears and prunes … at times in the tropics I have been exceedingly sorry I could not learn to like bananas and on round-ups, in the cow country in the old days, it was even more unfortunate not to like prunes; but I simply could not make myself like either, and that was all there was to it.”
Roosevelt goes on to say that of the books he had tried to read in the last month, he could read Guy Mannering, The Antiquary, Pendennis, Vanity Fair, Our Mutual Friend, and The Pickwick Papers over and over, but did not care for Fortunes of Nigel, Esmond, and The Old Curiosity Shop. “I have no question that the latter three books are as good as the first six,” he wrote. “Doubtless for other people they are better; but I do not like them, any more than I like prunes and bananas.”
And of course, as Roosevelt noted in his autobiography, a reader “must not hypocritically pretend to like what he does not like.”
3. Take book recommendations with a grain of salt.
You’re the best person to choose what books you want to read. “If a man or woman is fond of books he or she will naturally seek the books that the mind and soul demand,” Roosevelt wrote. “Suggestions of a possibly helpful character can be made by outsiders, but only suggestions; and they will probably be helpful about in proportion to the outsider’s knowledge of the mind and soul of the person to be helped.”
Or, as he wrote in his autobiography, “The reader, the booklover, must meet his own needs without paying too much attention to what his neighbors say those needs should be.” And all readers “should beware of the booklover’s besetting sin, of what Mr. Edgar Allan Poe calls ‘the mad pride of intellectuality,’ taking the shape of arrogant pity for the man who does not like the same kind of books.”
4. Train yourself to enjoy the classics ...
Roosevelt has a lot to say about personal preference when it comes to books, and how that should dictate what someone reads. However, he also has opinions about reading classics versus reading … the trashy stuff. “If anyone finds that he never reads serious literature, if all his reading is frothy and trashy, he would do well to try to train himself to like books that the general agreement of cultivated and sound-thinking persons has placed among the classics,” he wrote. “Let man or woman, young man or girl, read some good author, say Gibbon or Macaulay, until sustained mental effort brings power to enjoy the books worth enjoying.”
Only when this has been done can the reader “trust himself to pick out for himself the particular good books which appeal to him.”
5. … And avoid “vicious” books.
Roosevelt wrote in his autobiography that “books are almost as individual as friends. There is no earthly use in laying down general laws about them. Some meet the needs of one person, and some of another.”
Still, in “How I Do My Reading,” he wrote that personal preference isn’t an excuse for “permitting oneself to like what is vicious or even simply worthless.” What he means by that, we can ascertain from what follows, are books that deal with sex—which makes sense, given that Roosevelt was quite proper (some might have called him a prude).
He wrote that “If any man finds that he cares to read Bel Ami"—Guy de Maupassant’s 1885 novel about a poor young man’s scandalous rise to power—“he will do well to keep a watch on the reflex centers of his moral nature.” (Roosevelt advised picking up books by French dramatist Eugene Brieux or writer Henry Bordeaux if one finds himself in this particular situation.) Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace are great books to read, but if his reader prefers the author’s 1890 novella, The Kreutzer Sonata—another book that, like Bel Ami, deals with sex—“he had better make up his mind that for pathological reasons he will be wise thereafter to avoid Tolstoy entirely. Tolstoy is an exceedingly interesting and stimulating writer, but an exceedingly unsafe moral advisor.
“It is clear the reading of vicious books for pleasure should be eliminated,” Roosevelt concluded. “It is no less clear that trivial and vulgar books do more damage than can possibly be offset by any entertainment they yield.”
6. Don’t be afraid to follow a topic that interests you.
Roosevelt wrote that he reads in “streaks,” where he gets interested in a particular subject and reads about it in book after book after book, “and probably also [reads] books on subjects suggested by it … Even in pure literature, having nothing to do with history, philosophy, sociology or economy, one book will often suggest another, so that one finds one has unconsciously followed a regular course of reading.”
7. Find a few minutes to read everyday.
You may think that you’re too busy to read, but Theodore Roosevelt would disagree—he always found time to fit in a book (or four) every day. He wrote that he could “almost always” read in the evenings, and if he was otherwise occupied, he’d schedule half an hour of reading before bed. But he never limited himself to just the evening for reading. “All kinds of odd moments turn up during even a busy day, in which it is possible to enjoy a book,” he wrote. “And then there are rainy afternoons in the country in autumn, and stormy days in winter, when one’s work outdoors is finished and after wet clothes have been changed for dry, the rocking chair in front of the open wood fire simply demands an accompanying book.”
8. Read big books on vacations.
Theodore Roosevelt, who traveled quite frequently, knew the value of bringing a good book along on vacation. “Railway and steamboat journeys were, of course, predestined through the ages as aids to the enjoyment of reading,” he wrote. “I have always taken books with me when on hunting and exploring trips.” He put Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in his bag on hunting trips; when pursuing boat thieves in the Dakotas, he brought along a copy of Anna Karenina (he finished it on the trip, then borrowed a dime novel from one of the thieves); and he took 60 books—given to him by his younger sister, Corinne—on his year-long African safari.
“In such cases the literature should be reasonably heavy, in order that it may last,” he wrote. Being “under these conditions” allows the reader to tackle more ambitious books and authors, “as you never would if surrounded by less formidable authors in your own library; and when you do reach the journey’s end you grasp with eager appetite at old magazines, or at the lightest of literature.”
9. Use reading as a respite from the real world.
Roosevelt notes that the “best critics scorn the demand among novel readers for ‘the happy ending,’” but he personally didn’t see anything wrong with happy endings in novels, especially because real life is tough enough. “There are enough horror and grimness and sordid squalor in real life with which an active man has to grapple; and when I turn to the world of literature … I do not care to study suffering unless for some sufficient purpose. It is only a very exceptional novel which I will read if He does not marry Her; and even in exceptional novels I much prefer this consummation. I am not defending my attitude. I am merely stating it.”
Later, he wrote (and one gets the sense that he’s speaking from experience here) that “if one is worried by all kinds of men and events—during critical periods in administrative office, or at national conventions, or during congressional investigations or in hard-fought political campaigns—it is the greatest relief and unalloyed delight to take up some really good, some really enthralling book … and lose all memory of everything grimy, and of the baseness that must be parried or conquered.”
10. Let your mood dictate what you read.
Roosevelt was widely read, devouring books on everything from history and the military to volumes of poetry and natural history. “A man with a real fondness for books of various kinds will find that his varying moods determine which of these books he at the moment needs.”
TR also wrote in his autobiography, “A book must be interesting to the particular reader at that particular time.” So there’s no shame in putting a book aside if it’s not what you’re in the mood for at the moment!
11. Focus on reading of “permanent value.”
If there’s one thing you’ll learn from reading “How I Read,” it’s that TR seems to prefer classics to brand-new books. “Another matter which within certain rather wide limits each reader must settle for himself is the dividing line between (1) not knowing anything about current books and (2) swamping one’s soul in the sea of vapidity which overwhelms him who reads only ‘the last new books,’” he wrote, adding that the headline “books of the week” is damning both for the books and the reviewer:
“I would much rather see the heading ‘books of the year before last.’ A book of the year before last which is still worth noticing, would probably be worth reading; but one only entitled to be called a book of the week had better be tossed into the wastebasket at once. Still, there are plenty of new books which are not of permanent value but which nevertheless are worth more or less careful reading; partly because it is well to know something of what especially interested the mass of our fellows, and partly because these books, although of ephemeral worth, may really set forth something genuine in a fashion which for the moment stirs the hearts of all of us.”
12. Ignore lists of the best “100 books,” and forget about that “5-foot library.”
Roosevelt, whose own library at Sagamore Hill spanned multiple rooms (an accounting of all of the family’s books from 1919 was 77 pages long [PDF]), was no fan of “best books” lists and what he called a “5-foot library.” (He’s referring to Harvard’s “5-foot shelf,” a compilation of 51 works of literature. According to Project Gutenberg, “Dr. Eliot, then president of Harvard University, had stated in speeches that the elements of a liberal education could be obtained by spending 15 minutes a day reading from a collection of books that could fit on a 5-foot shelf.”) “There remain enormous masses of books, of which no one man can read more than a limited number, and among which each reader should choose those which meet his own particular needs,” TR wrote. “There is no such things as a list of ‘the 100 best books’ or the ‘best 5-foot library.’ … To attempt to create such a library that shall be of universal value is foreordained to futility.”
In his autobiography, he wrote that he had “no sympathy” for either concept, saying, “It is all right for a man to amuse himself by composing a list of a hundred very good books; and if he is to go off for a year or so where he cannot get many books, it is an excellent thing to choose a 5-foot library of particular books which in that particular year and on that particular trip he would like to read. But there is no such thing as a hundred books that are best for all men, or for the majority of men, or for one man at all times; and there is no such thing as a 5-foot library which will satisfy the needs of even one particular man on different occasions extending over a number of years.”
13. Read historical works to feel better about the present.
Roosevelt wrote that books can provide “consolation of a non-literary kind.” He advised that those who are irritated or frustrated or depressed about the current state of affairs might find reading books that deal with history “illuminating” or “consoling.” In some cases, “he will be …. devoutly thankful that his lot has been cast in the present age, in spite of all its faults.”