Lin Yutang on the art of reading

“The man who has not the habit of reading is imprisoned in his immediate world, in respect to time and space.”

Lin Yutang has helped me re-discover why I read. And I don’t mean reading just to ascertain material facts and routine information. I mean deep seeded reading that stirs the soul and excites the mind. I was awakened to the joy of reading at a very young age and spent a lot of my youthful days roaming the stacks of our local post library while other kids where roaming the neighbourhood. The library was my church and reading was my religion. And after reading Lin Yutang’s essay on The Importance of Living, I feel like a born again reader.

Lin Yutang opens his essay up with a comparison of a reader versus a non-reader. For Yutang, the person who does not have a cultivated habit of reading is imprisoned in their immediate world with respect to time and space. That person has limited their lives to a series of routines – limited contacts and conversations, which occur mostly within their immediate circle of friends and acquaintances and in the context their current environment. Yutang says, “From this prison there is no escape.”

Contrast this with the person who has cultivated a habit of reading:

“He immediately enters a different world, and if it’s a good book, he is immediately put in touch with one of the best talkers of the world. This talker leads him on and carries him into a different country or a different age, or unburdens to him some of his personal regrets, or discusses with him some special line or aspect of life that the reader knows nothing about.”

Reading has the potential to expand one’s mind. You’ve heard people say that you are what you eat. Equally you could say we are what we read. ¬†As Sir John Hegarty, the advertising exec and founder of the agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty said, if you “read shit, you’ll think shit and you’ll create shit.”

So what kind of reading is best?


“The best kind of reading is that which leads us into a contemplative mood, and not that which is merely occupied with the report of events. The tremendous amount of time spent on newspapers I regard as not reading at all, for the average readers of papers are mainly concerned with getting reports about events and happenings without contemplative value.”

Yutang goes on to say that reading gives a person a certain charm and a flavour and it is to this end a person should read if they want to be a master in the art of reading. To read simply because one feels one ought to because it makes them appear educated misses the mark. According to Yutang, “Anyone who reads a book with a sense of obligation does not understand the art of reading,” and will soon find all the pleasure of reading is gone.

Instead Yutang tells us that reading must be entirely spontaneous:

“One takes a limp volume of Lisao, or of Omar Khayyam, and goes away hand in hand with his love to read on a river bank. If there are good clouds over one’s head, let them read the clouds and forget the books, or read the books and the clouds at the same time. Between times, a good pipe or a good cup of tea makes it still more perfect. Or perhaps on a snowy night, when one is sitting before the fireside, and there is a kettle singing in the hearth, one gathers ten or a dozen books on philosophy, economics, poetry, biography and piles them up on the couch and then leisurely turns over a few of them and gently lights on the one which strikes his fancy at the moment.”

Hooray for books!

One last thing, people constantly tell me they don’t have time to read. And perhaps it’s because when they think of reading, the think of hours sitting idly. The truth is you get in the habit of always having a book with you, be it a physical book, or on your smartphone or tablet, then you can read whenever you have a spare moment…while waiting in line at the post office or waiting for your train or next meeting to start, during lunch or whenever.

I think if you truly love books you’ll read on because you simply can’t help yourself.