“Don’t Read Books!” A 12th-Century Zen Poem

Written by Maria Popova



We live in a culture that often romanticizes books as the tender and exhilarating love-making to the “orgasm without release” of Alan Watts’s admonition against our media gluttony — an antidote to the frantic multitasking of modern media, refuge from the alleged evils of technology, an invitation for slow, reflective thinking in a fast-paced age obsessed with productivity. Books, Kafka memorably asserted, are “the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”

Given I spend the majority of my waking hours reading and writing about books, I have certainly bought into that romantic notion. But everything, it turns out, is a matter of context: Imagine my amusement in chancing upon a poem titled “Don’t Read Books!” in the altogether wonderful slim volume Zen Poems: Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets (public library).

Penned by Chinese poet Yang Wanli in the 12th century, the poem, translated by Jonathan Chaves, is a renunciation of books as a distraction from the core Buddhist virtue of mindful presence:
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May I propose a Herzog dictum? Those who read own the world, and those who watch television lose it.

When legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog was asked about any advice that he could share with aspiring young filmmakers, his response – in his trademark thick Bavarian accent was along the lines of:

“Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read…”

There was no mention about the viewing of films. Naturally, this was not surprising for a man who did not encounter the television till his late teens, and devoted most of his years of youth traversing borders by foot, gaining more than a lifetime of memorable experiences. He then went onto independently write, direct and produce the most original films ever made, in the most inhospitable environments known to man.

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