Einstein once said:

Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking, just as the man who spends too much time in the theater is tempted to be content with living vicariously instead of living his own life.

  • What is the scientific claim implicit in this quote?
  • Is it true that reading too much makes the mind lazy, and is reading too much harmful to the mind?

*Quote from an interview with G.S. Viereck, "What Life Means to Einstein," Saturday Evening Post, October 26, 1929; re-printed in Viereck, Glimpses of the Great, 437.

  • Nevertheless, I have found a book on the internet which also seems to support the idea that reading can have negative consequences: amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0882297457/fourmilabwwwfour – Kenshin Dec 20 '12 at 18:01
  • And a review of the book is found here: fourmilab.ch/fourmilog/archives/2005-11/000613.html – Kenshin Dec 20 '12 at 18:03
  • 5
    A book which recommends that you don't read... The irony is palpable. – Robert Harvey Dec 21 '12 at 0:38
  • @RobertHarvey, I think the book was even written by a literature professor. I see the irony you speak of, but I think he is suggesting that too much reading is bad, not all reading is bad. But even if he was suggesting all reading is bad, one could think of it as a book to end all books. It is the toss up between reading this one book and never reading again vs reading hundreds of books that could cause harm. – Kenshin Dec 21 '12 at 2:04
  • Isn't "too" always implying it is bad? Otherwise it wouldn't be "too". – Steven Jeuris Dec 21 '12 at 12:05
up vote 13 down vote accepted

This answer is a bit more anecdotal, but perhaps it's useful.

From the perspective of an academic researcher (which perhaps is similar to Einstein's perspective), there is a balance between reading the literature and conducting your own research. There is a balance between learning new skills and applying those skills to your own projects. Even within the context of learning, there is a balance between reading how something is done and practicing actually doing it.

The very process of conducting your own research reveals challenges and gaps in understanding. Reading allows you to take on new information, however, doing good research also requires time to re-arrange ideas, refine your own theories. Furthermore, reading can vary in the degree to which it is a passive or active process. As an active process, choosing what to read, critically evaluating reading, is all part of building knowledge and ideas.

These ideas manifest in many places in curriculum design. A PhD thesis in particular is a good example of a project that requires a balance between understanding the existing literature and independent thought.

I presume that the quote is just a useful linguistic device to get people to think about this balancing process.

I think what Einstein had in mind is that in order to come up with original ideas one must keep a balance between knowledge and creativity, as already stated by Jeromy Anglim.

In a paper titled "The Composing Process and the Academic Composing Process" written by Stephen Krashen, Krashen says:

Although there is no empirical research on this hypothesis, writing experts recommend that academics begin writing before doing their “literature review”(more about that later) and before they think about gathering data. They recommend beginning by putting their ideas in outline form, or in any kind of planning format that feels comfortable. Peter Elbow explains the reason for this: It’s much easier to write in the beginning when you know less about a topic.

Relevant to the question: The Academic Composing Process (page 7)

Link for the full article: http://www.sdkrashen.com/content/articles/2005_composing_&_academic_process_krashen.pdf

Einstein might have a fair point of view in this manner. He presumably is pointing out the balance between reading and creative thinking. too much reading causes people to not question critically and refrain from interpreting ideas in their own unique way, whereas reading and learning at your own rate and time can lead to more promising ways of understanding the critical view of the world. Take the time to process and think about what you want to know, but even more important is to look at something through your own perspective and to not take the view that a book might give you. you are an individual and we all think differently :)

  • This doesn't really answer the question, as it neither clarifies the scientific claim in the quote nor provides evidence for against that claim. – Krysta Mar 2 '15 at 13:26

Your Answer


By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.