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Charles Darwin: His Reading Habits

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Part 1:


Reflecting as I now do on my 65 year reading life from 1949 to 2014, I found Darwin’s way of reading a book of interest.  He “often annotated heavily, prepared his own index of interesting passages, broke a book in half at the binding if it was too heavy and stopped to write about it in his notebooks.”  He showed,  as Howard Gruber puts it:  “a man at work using books as tools for getting knowledge, not as exhibitions of knowledge already crystallised”.1 Gillian Beer characterizes Darwin’s reading style, as “full of questions and exclamations, enthusiastic rebuttals and problem raising queries”.2


Howard Ernest Gruber(1922-2005) was an American psychologist, and a pioneer of the psychological study of creativity. He had a distinguished academic career working with Jean Piaget in Geneva and later co-founding the Institute for Cognitive Studies-Rutgers. At Columbia University Teachers College, he continued to pursue his interests in the history of science, and particularly the work of Charles Darwin. Gruber's work led to several important discoveries about the creative process and the developmental psychology of creativity.


I have taken an interest in Gruber's studies of creativity now in these years of my 70s due to the reinvention of myself in the last two decades as a writer and author, poet and publisher, online blogger and journalist, editor and researcher, reader and scholar. I have left my 50 year student-and-paid-employment-life, 1949 to 1999, far behind me now as I head into the evening of my life. After decades, too, of extensive work in Baha'i administration, in teaching and consolidation, service and social activism, I have now assumed a largely literary role.


Part 2:


Darwin not only continually challenged and examined the views of other authors, but he continuously questioned his own thoughts and definitions as a result.  Darwin’s writing reflected his reading style, and it reflected his view that our judgment of the world around us can never be complete.  A new fact or contribution is always potentially around the corner ready to disrupt what we think we know and make us think again. 



The ending of his book—“that from so simple a beginning in the chain of life endless forms, most beautiful and most wonderful, have been, and are being, evolved”3 is a testament to this principle.-Ron Price with thanks to 1Howard E. Gruber and Paul H. Barrett,  Darwin on Man: A Psychological Study of Scientific Creativitytogether with Darwin’s Early and Unpublished Notebooks,  London: Wildwood House, 1974, p. 62; 2 Gillian Beer,“Darwin’s Reading & the Fictions of Development,”  The Darwinian Heritage, editor, David Kohn, Princeton: PUP, 1985, p.547, and 3 Charles Darwin, Recollections of the Development of my Mind and Character: 1874-76, 1882 cited by Elizabeth Banks in Persuasions On-Line, Vol.30, No.2, spring, 2010.



Part 3:


Literary works from many fields

which bring writing skill & insight

together in the examination of some

aspect of human culture bring me a

great deal of pleasure in this evening

of my life as I head through my '70s

and into old-age, the years after 80,

if I last that long. Such works bring

my critical faculties into play, and in1

the process, a penetrating scrutiny is

brought into the literary game with a

keen observer at the centre of things

bringing about this meaningful & this

deserving happiness in these my years

of late adulthood and retirement from

a 50 year student-and-employment life.


1 I thank Elizabeth Bankes for her essay: “Read and reread until they could be read no more:  Charles Darwin and the Novels of Jane Austen", Persuasions On-Line, V.30, N.2, spring 2010. This essay contained many comments on the influence of Jane Austen's novels on Charles Darwin among others.


Ron Price



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