Professor Wu's Rulebook

How we read: Theodore Roosevelt’s rules for reading


Some of the greatest thinkers in human history have long pondered the power of books. Aristotle found that reading surpassed “all stupendous inventions”, while the great author and critic E.B. White suggested books could produce “a sort of ecstasy”. Not only have these great minds tried to give a reason to why we read; they have also put forward suggestions on where we should read – asking whether there is such a thing as the ideal sanctuary for books and reading.

Yet we have not yet tackled questions on how we should read – or whether the way in which we consume books, information and literature has a bearing on our reading experience.

This is a subject pondered by one of the most zealous readers in the history of mankind: Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States.

To give you an idea of the level of Roosevelt’s literary consumption, it is well-known that he would read a book before breakfast every day, and up to a further two or three books again in the evening. By his own estimates, he read tens of thousands of books over the course of his lifetime.

A lifetime advocate of the power of literature, Roosevelt noted in his autobiography a series of points that can be taken as his suggested “rules” for reading, which, if applied correctly by the reader, can ensure they make the most of books and literature.

We’ve noted them here below:

  1. Dispense with booklists

Roosevelt writes: “The room for choice is so limitless that to my mind it seems absurd to try to make catalogues which shall be supposed to appeal to all the best thinkers. This is why I have no sympathy whatever with writing lists of the One Hundred Best Books, or the Five-Foot Library. It is all right for a man to amuse himself by composing a list of a hundred very good books… 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.”

  1. Read what you enjoy

Roosevelt writes: “A book must be interesting to the particular reader at that particular time […] Personally, the books by which I have profited infinitely more than by any others have been those in which profit was a by-product of the pleasure; that is, I read them because I enjoyed them, because I liked reading them, and the profit came in as part of the enjoyment.”

  1. Ignore what people tell you to read

Roosevelt writes: “The reader, the booklover, must meet his own needs without paying too much attention to what his neighbours say those needs should be.”

  1. Don’t fake enjoyment

Roosevelt writes: “The reader must not hypocritically pretend to like what he does not like.”

  1. Beware the mad pride of intellectuality – don’t judge others for their book choices

Roosevelt writes: “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; and each person 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.”

  1. Read poetry, novels and short stories

Roosevelt writes: “Now and then I am asked as to ‘what books a statesman should read,’ and my answer is, poetry and novels – including short stories under the head of novels.”

  1. Stock your library with the books you want to read – not those you feel you have to

Roosevelt writes: “Ours is in no sense a collector’s library. Each book was procured because some one of the family wished to read it. We could never afford to take overmuch thought for the outsides of books; we were too much interested in their insides.”

  1. Learn what it means to be human by reading

Roosevelt writes: “[We] all need more than anything else to know human nature, to know the needs of the human soul; and they will find this nature and these needs set forth as nowhere else by the great imaginative writers, whether of prose or of poetry.”


So! There you have it. Some wonderful guidance on reading from an ex-president. But just how did he read tens of thousands of books in his lifetime? Perhaps his speed reading is something we will need to revisit – I sense another post in the making! Until then comrades.


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1 comment

  1. Theodore was so many things. One of the greatest leaders ever. This just proves that, he was into things on a grand scale and things like this on an educational front. I have been reading Theodore Roosevelt the Making of American Leadership by Jon Knokey. If you want to know more about the man this book will inspire. Especially looking at today’s political leaders, it makes you wish we had more men like him to lead.

    Liked by 1 person

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