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Dr. Goss’ prescription for a lifetime of reading

By David Berry • November 22, 2020Recommended Reading

Readers are almost always made young, and in that way at least, Dr. Joe Goss is no exception.

His choice of reading, though, might go some way to explaining his rather unusual path through the world — if not worlds — of becoming a lifelong reader.

At the age of “13 or 14,” Goss explains, he picked up his lifelong obsession with books and what they could do for him when he started reading the 2300-year-old philosophical bedrock of Chinese Taoist religion, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. Not exactly Harry Potter, or even Holden Caulfield, but it had the necessary effect: from that moment on, Goss couldn’t put books down, even, if not especially, heady philosophical texts that cut right to the heart of how and why we’re meant to live.

“I started reading other great philosophers and I couldn't turn away from them,” Goss explains in his soft but excitable New York accent, which comes across a bit like someone banging on the hood of your car to tell you they’re readin’ he-ah. “They usually got in the way of schoolwork because I found those more interesting than the stuff we're learning in school.

“But I was reading to answer questions. I had no idea what I was doing — it was just to fill a ‘why’,” he explains, before quoting one of those formative thinkers he was devouring. “Like Nietzsche says: how is easy when there's a why.”

Goss certainly had no trouble with the how. At his peak, he explained, he devoured books so steadily he needed a librarian friend to create a Dewey Decimal system for his home library, just so he could hope to find them. (And this was between the dozens of weekly journal articles and studies he had to keep up with as part of his job as a doctor working in neuroscience and pharmacology.)

Despite his voraciousness, though, Goss eventually came to realize that there was something missing in his book diet. Everything he was devouring, after all, was non-fiction — something “useful,” in his words, or anyway the words he would have used when reading was either part of his literal job or an activity he approached just like it.

“I always believed if you weren't learning something, you're wasting your time. [...] It was just about memorizing key facts they want you to repeat.”

“Reading was a means to make me really good at what I did, but it was never fun,” Goss says, explaining that, beyond medical works, he stuck closely to history and popular science texts, things like Stephen Hawking and Yuval Noah Harari — heady stuff, certainly, but stuff with clear takeaways, stuff he could rigorously highlight, memorize and regurgitate when he needed it. “I always believed if you weren't learning something, you're wasting your time. I think maybe prep school beat it out of me: we would read novels, but it wasn’t enjoyment. It was just about memorizing key facts they want you to repeat.”

Though that utilitarian approach certainly served him well for his working life, as he approached retirement, he came to realize that he wanted a bit more out of life — that all his reading was a kind of exam prep for a test that, he was slowly realizing, wasn’t ever going to come.

“Well, I'm a Quaker, I've never drank, never smoked, never tried pot, never had the crazy college or high school experience. I was always focused on working,” he explained. “At a certain point, I didn’t want to be a lifetime designated driver.”

“For the first time in my life, I understood smoking pot without smoking pot. I actually enter into a different space,”

Fortunately, Goss’s indulgent vices are limited to the literary world. He began by putting down the treatises and picking up the Classics — the furthest he could go while still convincing himself he was learning something. “I figured if I could quote from all these great works, nobody could say I wasted my time,” Goss says with a laugh. “I did enjoy them, but at times it felt like dental work.”

With his metaphorical teeth straightened, though, Goss found a whole new world when he picked up a Kobo, and the instant access, previews and flood of deals made trying a new book easier than ever. He found himself downloading titles from sections he would have never even walked by, from self-help to, contemporary fiction. And all of the sudden reading became not just a way to understand the world around him, but to move through it in ways he never really considered possible.

“For the first time in my life, I understood smoking pot without smoking pot. I actually enter into a different space,” Goss explains, citing Harry Potter and Haruki Murakami as two figures who taught him to appreciate different aspects of reading. “I realized at a certain point that it’s never the conclusions I like, it’s the getting there. It’s like going for a walk in the woods, of travelling abroad — it’s a chance to commune with something else, to listen to something else for a change.”

Now, though Goss’s library has shrunk, his world has expanded — he admits that he can’t imagine how he might have survived the pandemic without a multiverse of worlds and viewpoints at his fingertips, without ways for his brain to soak up something completely different. And though he certainly doesn’t have the disposition of someone who spends a lot of time on regrets, he does admit that he finds himself wondering what might have been if he had let reading be a little less about lessons and more about life.

“You know, centuries ago, a scholar spoke several languages, was fluent in psychology, philosophy, theology, science, art, everything,” he says. “Today — you know, the doctoral students I teach are very smart people, but they’re very smart people in a silo. To some degree we need to be that way, because when a patient call comes, you have someone’s life in your hands but I have always faithfully incorporated the humanities and other science disciplines into my teaching. In retirement, broadening my own reading with new genres has further rounded out my scholarship.

“But I think maybe life would have had more Technicolor and less washed out color, had I taken the time to do this, you know? To stop and smell the roses or whatever you want to call it.”

Or at least to read about what the roses smell like once in a while. ◼

Dr. Goss’ Prescription for a Lifetime of Reading:

What was your “gateway” book? (the book that made you think Ah! Fiction! This is like pot without smoking pot!)

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami that was offered by Kobo for only $1.99 on a special.

What tops your “to be read” list at the moment?

Levels of Life by Julian Barnes, Skin in the Game by Nassim Nicoholas Taleb, Norwegian Wood by Murakami,

What is the best book you read in 2020? (or books)

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage By Murakami

What would you recommend to a young doctor, or your younger self?

Get and keep your science up to date, then reach out to the classics like The Odyssey by Homer and Araby by James Joyce, and make time to land and explore the human experience in quality fiction that shifts the mind's gear into those human factors that help us grow as people.

What books would we be surprised to see in your library?

Antique manuscripts/books of 18 century remedies, Folklore titles like- A Walker In The City, a massive collection of Norton Anthologies.

What books do you return to over and over again?

I have a large number of fiction and non-fiction books. I reread the yellow highlights which improves recognition and recall of the content with non-fiction and leads me to re-read sections and passages of fiction. Often that leads to a complete re-read of the book. I have reread about 50% of the books in my home library, some several times like Harry Potter.

What books top your recommendations lists to friends?

My recommendations typically are appropriate for their current quest. If searching for the meaning of life I suggest Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl or When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. If looking for pleasure reads than anything by Murakami or Mary Oliver.

What books would you want with you on a desert island?

The Tao Te Ching (at least 3 different translations), reference/nature guides on survival, The Odyssey by Homer.

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