Reading, writing and thinking

By John Langhorne / Guest Editorial

When I was a youngster, one of my greatest discoveries came when I was about 10: the Helena (Mont.) Public Library. Two rotating cases of science fiction and they would let me take home as many as five books.

Since then, I have had a life-long relationship with librarians. Recently, I received several emails pointing to an article in the Guardian about libraries, reading and daydreaming. Read the story at

The author, Neil Gaiman, makes two major points. For children, reading fiction is the gateway to reading, he noted.

He also discussed how at the first ever Chinese science fiction conference — science fiction was previously banned in China — the organizer stated that software engineers in China are not very imaginative. They sent a delegation to the Silicon Valley and learned that virtually all American software engineers were avid science fiction readers. Now, Chinese leadership requires software engineers to attend science fiction conferences. Totalitarians never get it, do they?

Mr. Gaiman also quite compellingly makes the point that for children, reading anything is much better than reading nothing. However, reading with the guidance of someone who can gauge your interests and link you to appropriate opportunities — such people are called librarians — can open up a new world of enjoyment. He debunks the idea that escapist fiction is a bad thing.

His second point is, reading teaches empathy. How many movies have you gone to, enjoyed and then commented that the book was much better. With a book, you can experience the character’s internal life, you can see into their minds, know what they are thinking and feeling and what then drives their actions.

Mr. Gaiman is a fiction writer and he is a fine advocate for fiction. Fiction is easy reading; nonfiction conversely is almost by definition difficult reading, but non-fiction is more salient. So as a non-fiction writer, let me add balance to his observations.

Non-fiction reading has two powerful effects. First, it teaches people to write and thus to think. I believe that people who do not read cannot write. I know of no writers who are not avid readers. Reading a wide variety of authors gives you a huge sample of mostly good, and sometimes exquisite, writing.

Throughout the years, I have reported on or summarized many books and the greatest joy is to describe an author as erudite. The path from reading to writing continues on to thinking. I believe that people who do not read, cannot write and people who cannot write, cannot think.

This perhaps requires a bit of explanation. Consider for a moment the difference between the spoken word and the written word. The spoken word is messy and it is ephemeral. When I give a speech, I hope to say the right things, but I often make many mistakes and the audience understands this perfectly. And what I said, unless it was profound (I hope), is lost in just a few more sentences.

When I was a manager, many of my colleagues were recent graduates and they often came to me with interesting ideas. I tried to listen respectfully and then I asked them to write me a paragraph making the idea more explicit. If they did, the idea they brought was markedly better than the oral version initially shared. There are about 700 words in this article, written over a period of about 10-12 days. You can speak as many words in less than five minutes.

Philosopher George Santayana said, “those who do not heed the lessons of the past are condemned to relive them.”

There is much to be learned from reading history. Teaching in an MBA program, I often add material about the economic and cultural history of the U.S., as well as global perspectives. This material usually draws very favorable reviews. Occasionally, a student anonymously notes that such material is a waste of time. Oddly, this review usually occurs only a week or two after we intensively examine the nature and effect of having one’s own personal story (his story) as an anchor and guide to self-management.




John Langhorne is with Langhorne Associates. He can be reached at His new e-book, “Beyond IQ: Practical Steps to Find the Best You,” is available at