The Literary Culture of Great Minds
Voracious reading is critical to unlocking one's potential.
This is Part 1 of our three part series on the biographies of genius.
All great minds start with books.
Albert Einstein was a voracious reader and a prolific writer. Before he became history's greatest physicist he was a clerk in a government office in Switzerland. His career ambition, according to Nigel Calder in his introduction to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, was to advance in the government office and have a relatively comfortable, but boring, life.
He had a special love for physics, and every day after work he would sit as his kitchen table, or at cafes in Bern and Zurich, eat cookies, drink coffee and read, think and write about physics. He paid to subscribe to scientific journals. He purchased books. He made time to read. He made time to write.
For many years Einstein wrote review articles—distillations of topics and themes—that were immensely helpful to contemporary scientists. His competence in these essays lead to a university position. But more importantly, it was while reading the books and journals he was reviewing that he developed his own ideas.
Einstein came to his ideas because of his reading and writing. In an essay on the matter he wrote, “what a person thinks on his own without being stimulated by the thoughts and experiences of other people is even in the best case rather paltry and monotonous.” Einstein believed very strongly that reading transforms minds.
Mental acuity, one’s potential for genius, is stimulated by reading widely and reading deeply. Einstein believed minds can be lucid, and that great minds can change the world. But he believed that minds needed to be coaxed and unlocked. He called this process an “awakening” of “productive psychological forces.”
Einstein is known as a mathematician, but in many ways he was first a reader and a writer. For over a decade he devoured every book and physics journal he could. Slowly but steadily he had insight after insight after insight, until he developed his Theory of Relativity, an understanding of light and gravity so profound that it would change how we view the universe.
It is popular to believe that intelligence is only genetic. Today, despite all of our scientific tools and measurements, we have not found a single factor solely related to intelligence. There are examples of genius from every background, from every race. Some have great diets. Some, such as Warren Buffett, have poor diets. Some grew up wealthy. And some, such Bobby Fischer, the greatest chess player of all time, grew up poor in rundown housing in New York.
Fischer was an awful student. He would ditch school repeatedly. Everybody knows that he was obsessed with chess, and that he derived pleasure in winning. But more than playing chess, as Frank Brady, a biographer, and Rene Chun, a journalist, point out, he studied it.
His earliest introductions to chess were through books from the New York Library system. He would read chess books and journals nonstop and practice what he read. He would internalize great matches that he read about. It was when he started this practice that he went from talented to genius.
When he was a teenager, Fischer lived like most college students—no furniture, dishes and take out boxes everywhere. But two things separated him from others: He had chessboards scattered throughout his apartment in various stages of matches, and in the rest of the free space—on the floor, on tables, on window sills— he had stacks and stacks of books and journals. If he wasn’t playing chess, he was reading.
Many of these games were played against himself, and he would go days without making moves. In the meantime, he was marking pages in journals, scribbling moves on paper, reading while walking, reading while on the train. Eventually something would strike his mind, and he would produce a move that often turned out to be a chess breakthrough.
Before Martin Luther King Jr became the man we remember he was on a path to become a relatively boring church leader and family man. That is what he thought he wanted. But then he read Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience in his last year in college and became convinced that he could be something more.
But what could he become? Marshall Frady illustrates in his book Martin Luther King, Jr, A Life that it was then that King began to see that the forces of society, even when ordained by local ministries, do not have to be accepted as correct.
He worked as a minister for a while, reading for ideas and practicing delivery, and decided to get a PhD in seminary. During this period he decided to read many of the greatest thinkers and books in history. He was an avid reader, a practiced speaker, and his role as a leader in the community was becoming clear. But he was still too academic.
His reading continued to build, he continued to hone his message. Eventually he discovered different interpretations of Christian philosophy, such as Jesus and the Disinherited, by theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman, and became awakened. He found what Robert Greene, a popular historian, calls “a sense of purpose.”
King was always a bright student, and was a voracious reader, but for much of his early life he was conventional. The inner Martin Luther King Jr, the man he could become, was brought out through intense reading of books that challenged and expanded his mind.
This is what Einstein told us: "What a person thinks on his own without being stimulated by the thoughts and experiences of other people is even in the best case rather paltry and monotonous." This was true for Albert Einstein, Bobby Fischer, and Martin Luther King Jr. Each had great potential, and that potential was uncovered by reading.
Warren Buffett is the greatest investor of all time. He is often discussed as an oracle. Yet by his own admission he is not an oracle. The greatest investor of all time was so nearsighted that he could not see the value and necessity of Apple, Amazon, and Google, despite all three being dominant companies.
Buffett, like so many other eventual geniuses, was at one time a regular guy. He was a new graduate, newly married. He got an MBA from Columbia, and afterward worked for an investment firm in New York. He would commute by train into the city, reading on his commute, then go home and have a barbecue on the weekends.
He found city life tedious so he moved back to Omaha and started a small investment firm for friends and family. His plan was to work a little and take college classes in his spare time, because he loved to read, he loved to learn. But eventually he was introduced to a man named Charlie Munger. Munger, like Buffett, was a voracious reader, often described as a book with legs.
That meeting changed investment history. They decided to form an investment partnership based on a book, The Intelligent Investor, by Benjamin Graham, a professor at Columbia. Their idea was to use the ideas, the philosophies, the rationale in the book, because those ideas stimulated powerful new insights inside them. The press describe Buffett as an oracle, but he describes himself as a Graham disciple.
Warren Buffett was an avid reader his whole life. Like Bobby Fischer, he was lucky to discover something that brought him a sense of intellectual joy early, and like all other geniuses he read widely and deeply. Just as every other regular person who later turns into a genius, his mind was exercised by books, by writing, by discussion, and then shocked into action by some critical text.
This pattern is clear throughout history. Genius gets uncovered by reading, by writing, by thinking, by discussing. Grappling with books--difficult books--is essential to uncovering one's inner genius.
This does not mean that everybody can be a great physicist or chess player. Einstein had what Nigel Calder, an eminent science writer, called a great intuition of physics. Bobby Fischer also had a great intuition of the chess board. Martin Luther King Jr and Warren Buffett had different intuitions, perhaps broader intuition.
In all of these cases, however, and in nearly every case throughout history, such intuition--potential genius-- started out as a type of coal. That coal was then chipped away by reading to eventually reveal the diamond inside.
Understand this: If these greats did not read as they did, if they did not think about and practice what they read, they would not have become geniuses. They would not have realized their potential.
You as well have something great within you, but it is probably not what you think it is. To discover your potential you must develop an obsession for reading and for thinking about what you read. Read widely, read deeply, and watch how you transform.
But there is more to genius than books. Albert Camus, a Noble Prize winning author, once said that the greatest artists and thinkers are with their society, but at the same time rebel against it. That type of rebellion is critical to genius. It is also the topic of our next installment.
Relevant sources and books. We sell many of these in store for less than online. Buy from us!
Books / Affiliate Links
Brady, Frank. Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall, Crown, 2012.
Einstein, Albert. Relativity, The Special and General Theory, Penguin, 2006. Intro by Nigel Calder.
Einstein, Albert. Ideas and Opinions, Three Rivers Press, 1982.
Frady, Marshall. Martin Luther King Jr, A Life, Penguin, 2002.
Fishcer, Robert. Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess, Bantam Books, 1982.
Graham, Benjamin. The Intelligent Investor, HapperCollins, 2006.
Greene, Robert.The 48 Laws of Power, Penguin, 1998.
Greene, Robert. The Laws of Human Nature, Penguin, 2018.
Lowenstein, Roger. Buffett, The Making of an American Capitalist, Random House, 1995.
The CNBC Warren Buffett Archives. The Aha Moment that Changed Buffett’s Life, 2 May 2022. Accessed June 19 2022.
Chun, Rene. Bobby Fischer’s Pathetic Endgame, The Atlantic, Dec 2002. Accessed Jun 19 2022.
Lewis, Fami. 5 Men Who Inspired Martin Luther King Jr to Be a Leader, ThoughtCo, 15 Dec 2020. Accessed June 19 2022.
The Martin Luther King Jr Research and Edication Center. The King Encyclopedia, Thurman, Howard entry. Accessed June 19 202.
Once again a well articulated and thought provoking post. You have inspired me to start writing more. I homeschool my kids and we read all the time but if I want them to be writers, I need to write as well!
As always your posts are thought provoking and inspiring. Thank you for your efforts!!
(We continue to let other team ropers visiting Arizona know about your shop and look forward to visiting again ourselves this year, likely December. I still dream of your cappuccino and gourmet breakfasts!!)