Second-Level Reading

I just finished reading book three, Master of the Senate, of Robert Caro’s four volume biography on Lyndon B. Johnson. I read the first, The Path to Power, in March and the second, Means of Ascent, in May of this year. All four volumes are very long; they total over 3000 pages. Caro takes a very objective approach and does an excellent job - it is not by accident that he has won the Pulitzer Prize for biographies multiple times. 

Lyndon Johnson was a remarkable person. It would not be an overstatement to call him a political genius. More than anything else, he excelled at understanding and using power, as he acknowledged himself:  “I do understand power, whatever else may be said about me. I know where to look for it, and how to use it.” In almost every phase of his life, LBJ demonstrated an extremely unusual talent for cultivating power. He was literally among the best in the world at this.

I have greatly enjoyed reading these first three books and I look forward to the fourth. (A fifth and final volume is also in the works.) I learned a lot reading about LBJ, but it required some thinking. This is a good example of the difference between first-level reading and second-level reading. I learned more about power from reading Caro’s books on LBJ than I did reading a few nonfiction books detailing the intricacies of power. I find this pattern is frequently the case. 

In school we often learn better through examples, anecdotes, or metaphors compared to simply memorizing new material. This is true for reading too. Patrick O’Shaughnessy has a killer new post where he talks about how metaphors and mental models are the key to understanding.  He writes “It is through metaphors that language and understanding grow from simple things to more complex things.” This is just as true for reading books as it is for learning in general. As a result, second-level reading requires reading between the lines and searching not just for books that attempt to directly convey something, but also books that may have some hidden lessons.

One could read a book on leadership, or one could read a book on John Wooden. One could read a book or article on wealth inequality, or one could read A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. A financial advisor could read a book on how to be empathetic with clients, or he/she could read Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. Books that are more technical are not bad; I read plenty of those too. They are just not typically how we learn ideas and information that are a bit more complex. I would strongly encourage those looking to read more to be a bit more eclectic in their learning.