A picture of David Hume, the philosopher.

Why You Should Read Hard Books

There’s value in learning to read hard books. Perhaps the best way to explain this is with a ridiculous fitness metaphor.

Sidenote. Yesterday, I talked about the hedonic treadmill of reading. I must subconsciously be trying to get ready for my summer bikini body.


I love going to the gym. I’m a powerlifter, which is a fancy term for a “person who likes to lift heavy stuff.” The program is simple; consistently try to increase how much I can lift in the squat, bench press, and deadlift.

Today, I had an insightful gym session. I squatted close to 500 pounds, so it was a very heavy workout. I don’t like talking about this side of my life because it feels boastful, but there’s a point to be made which is that heavy weights act differently from light ones.

I struggle to have good form when there’s no weight on the bar. In a squat, you want that bar to go straight down and then back up in a perfect, vertical line. If you watch the lifter from the side, the end of that barbell shouldn’t zig-zag forward or backward at all. If there is movement, then the weight on your back becomes much heavier since it’s extended away from your center of gravity. Think of holding a bowling ball with your arms outstretched, rather than close to your chest. The position changes how heavy it feels.

As you add weight, gravity begins to help. The barbell wants to go straight down when you squat. The weight keeps you in good form. Lifting heavy is an excellent teacher.

Learning to read hard books is like a heavy barbell. You should spend time with challenging texts, not because reading Aristotle makes you look intelligent to your friends, but because Aristotle makes you intelligent. The weight of his work forces you to think – a rare skill for many people these days. The gravity of his ideas forces you to sit down and ponder.

Have you ever worked through Plato, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, or Hume? Their work, along with countless other nuanced writers is complicated. Pushing against their ideas will demand your attention. You may have to read the page several times, talk about it with colleagues, and go for a walk. You may have to take a course, led by an instructor who has dedicated her life to understanding the author’s ideas. There’s new vocabulary to master and concepts you’ve never considered. The whole thing hurts your brain.

And yet it’s enjoyable because when you read hard books, they make you stronger.

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