Friday 5 December 2014

How to find your destiny? The Snowball Strategy for reading. Advice from Joseph Campbell

The most important period of my scholarship and study  ([was when] I retired to the woods... and just read, and read, and read, and read for five years...

I had arranged a schedule for myself. I divided the day into four four-hour periods, of which I would be reading in three of the four-hour periods, and free one of them...It worked very well. I would get nine hours of sheer reading done a day. And this went on for five years straight. You get a lot done in that time... 

Reading what you want,and having one book lead to the next, is the way I found my discipline...

When you find a writer who really is saying something to you, read everything that writer has written and you will get more education and depth of understanding out of that than reading a scrap here and a scrap there and elsewhere. 

Then go to people who influenced that writer, or those who were related to him, and your world builds together in an organic way that is really marvellous.

From pp 52-3 of The Hero's Journey - Joseph Campbell on his life and work, edited by Phil Cousineau, 1982. The authorized biography Joseph Campbell: a fire in the mind by S. & L. Larsen, makes clear that the above account is a simplified overview, and that in the 'five year' period Campbell was not reading for nine hours every day, or anything like every day; but took several extended trips and numerous shorter visits. So the above account is best considered a summary of his modal average day over the period of his life between returning from Europe until commencing his thirty-eight year job teaching at Sarah Lawrence College.


That description is the closest I have encountered to my own 'method' as a youth and young man - making allowances such as my spending much less reading due to being in full-time education and work.

But going from book to book, and reading 'everything' by and about the authors which I am currently having a craze on... this is exactly what I have done over the years.


Does this way of reading have a name? Perhaps it could be the Snowball Strategy after the Snowball sampling method of anthropology

The idea is that you get to know a few people, then the people they know, and the people they know - and it grows like a snowball.

This treats the world of books like the vast population of everybody, and recognises that we can only engage in sampling from literature if we want actually to get-to-know individual books and authors.

It treats books like people, and reading as a personal relationship with authors. To me, this seems not just valid, but right.


Of course, it would be a mistake to follow only the Snowball Strategy of reading, because it could simply confirm your false prejudices by sealing-off from engagement with alternative world views; also you might well miss something that you ought to be reading, and which synchronicity keeps drawing to your attentions.

Therefore, some element of a survey of recommended canonical reading is inevitable (nibbles of Plato, Shakespeare, Goethe... that kind of thing) - plus it is vital to supplement the Snowball Strategy with hunches, and the directions and discernments of the heart.

Also to be open to abandoning a line of enquiry which is giving bad feedback, which the discerning heart is warning you against. It may be that you become an 'expert' in a field in order to reject it - but that rejection comes from a deep understanding.


I never responded well to the 'Great Books' idea of following a curriculum of reading, being forced to read specific things, at a specific stage of my life and in a specific order - indeed I hated being in a Book Club for exactly this reason - timing of reading and personal motivation for reading are so important that recommendations for reading have usually been counter-productive.

My personal reading has often, usually, been against the grain of my formal education and work.

While studying science as a teen I was reading Tolkien, Bernard Shaw, Robert Graves and following lines-out from them; as a pre-clinical medical student I spent a year reading almost everything in modern British drama; as a graduate student in English Literature I spent a year reading, talking and writing philosophy; and so on - my personal reading quest had its own, unpredictable, contrarian dynamic.


Exploring the world of books no doubt sounds a pretty lame way of life to most people, but for intellectuals in the post-Gutenberg era, his pattern and depth of reading has been substantially definitive of each scholar- and has indeed has a vocational and spiritual dimension.

I offer this Snowball Strategy as a possibility for someone who is seeking, questing, adrift in the world of knowledge; and who feels impelled to find their own path. 



pyrrhus said...

Very true, I had forgotten this...Years back, I began reading the Patrick O'Brian novels about Captain Aubrey and Doctor Maturin in the age of fighting sail. Read all of them, and the effect was profound...a whole world and its philosophy brought to life in a way that reading one or two books of the series would never have accomplished.

Anonymous said...

I am working my way through the O'Brian novels myself.

One point I might make against books, despite having read many many many of them, is that they ultimately do not change the core of our being. They polish the edges, but you are who you are and nothing can change that.

I feel today that, despite being a little taller and with more knowledge of the world under my belt, I am the exact same person I was when I was a small child. The core has never changed.

So from this, I would say that there is nothing you truly have to read. I have always found books pleasurable and full of useful information. They have profoundly affected my life and I am glad to have read them, but I am what I am and nothing could ever change that.

Bruce Charlton said...

@p and A - By an interesting synchronicity, I have for the past few weeks been reading and brooding over The Quest for Merlin by Nikolai Tolstoy - who was Patrick O'Brian's step-son.

Anon - please use a pseudonym! - you make an interesting point. I agree that there is an unchanged core of self which persists from childhood; BUT this self is often, I would say usually, cut-off and hidden from contact with the world through adult life - and we become a victim of a false self.

Reading the right books at the right time can be a way of discovering, recovering and strengthening the real self - for me Tolkien had this rolemore than any other writer, but surely there would ne different authors for different people.