Joseph Campbell on Reading Nine Hours a Day and Independent Scholarship

Independent Scholarship: Joseph Campbell on Reading Nine Hours a Day

“A hero is someone who has given their life to something bigger than oneself."

Joseph Campbell

Joseph Campbell was born on March 26, 1904 in White Plains, New York and passed away on October 30, 1987 in Honolulu, Hawaii. He discusses his life and work with Stuart L. Brown and the result is the illuminating work, The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell’s Life and Work. Brown was the producer of the documentary detailing Joseph Campbell’s life under a slightly different name: The Hero’s Journey: The World of Joseph Campbell.

Joseph Campbell - The Hero's Journey

Campbell studied science and math at Dartmouth before transferring to Columbia to pursue the humanities. He earned his Bachelor’s in English and his Master’s in medieval literature. Throughout his reading, writing, and travel, he hoped to help others see that “myth is a reflection of the one sublime adventure of life and then to breathe new life into it.”

After spending time abroad for two years, Campbell returned to Columbia and sought faculty support for his growing interests in Sanskrit, modern art, and medieval literature. The faculty at the time preferred Campbell to stay in his lane and continue his projected course of study instead of pursuing Sanskrit. Knowing he could not do that, he opted out of pursuing his PhD. 

He later acknowledges his method of independent scholarship actually helped him develop and hone his sense of artistic observation. This independent scholarship includes an unending curiosity and a life of voracious reading. 

Two weeks after he returned home from traveling abroad, the stock market crashed and launched the country into a devastating economic depression. Despite having very little money and no job, Joseph Campbell entered into one of the richest times of his life. His wealth came in the form of an abundant feast of reading: 

So during the years of the Depression I had arranged a schedule for myself. When you don’t have a job or anyone to tell you what to do, you’ve got to fix one for yourself. I divided the day into four four hour periods, of which I would be reading in three of the four-hour periods, and free one of them.

By getting up at eight o’clock in the morning, by nine I could sit down to read. That meant I used the first hour to prepare my own breakfast and take care of the house and put things together in whatever shack I happened to be living in at the time. Then three hours of that first four-hour period went to reading.

Then came an hour break for lunch and another three-hour unit. And then comes the optional next section. It should normally be three hours of reading and then an hour for dinner and then three hours free and an hour getting to bed so I’m in bed by twelve.

On the other hand, if I were invited out for cocktails or something like that, then I would put the work hour in the evening and the play hour in the afternoon.

It worked very well. I would get nine hours of sheer reading done a day. And this went on for five years straight. You get a lot done in that time. When the job at Sarah Lawrence came, until I started writing, I continued that schedule over the weekends, when I was at home.

Reading what you want, and having one book lead to the next, is the way I found my discipline. I’ve suggested this to many of my students: When you find a writer who really is saying something to you, read everything that writer has written and you will get more education and depth of understanding out of that than reading a scrap here and a scrap there and elsewhere. Then go to people who influenced that writer, or those who were related to him, and your world builds together in an organic way that is really marvelous. Whereas the way these things are taught normally in college and school is a sampler of what this one wrote and that one wrote and you’re asked to be more interested in the date of the publication of Keat’s sonnets than in what in them.”

Joseph Campbell's independent Study Schedule

Time Activity
8:00 - 9:00 Breakfast
9:00 - 12:00 Reading
12:00 - 1:00 Lunch
1:00-4:00 Reading
4:00 - 5:00 Dinner
5:00 - 8:00 Reading
8:00 - 11:00 Free
11:00 - 12:00 Bed

In this biographical portrait, Cambpell regards this time of his life, when he read nine hours a day for five years straight, as the most important period of his scholarship. 

Following this phase, he was offered a job at Sarah Lawrence where he went on to teach young women for 38 years. He would continue his nine hour reading days on weekends, but his daily rhythm understandably changed when he started teaching. 

What remained, though, is the beautiful inner life that flourished after the incredible amount of seeds he furiously planted in the soil of his mind during these five years of reading. 

His reading was a kind of meditation. When Alan Watts asked him one day what kind of meditation he did, Joseph Campbell replied, “I underline sentences.” 

After recalling this conversation with Alan Watts, Campbell invokes a beautiful phrase he read in a work of Novalis, a philosopher of early German Romanticism: “The seat of the soul is where the inner and the outer worlds meet.” 

He elaborates on the ways in which this convergence moves him toward a kind of artistic observation

“The outer world is what you get in scholarship, the inner world is your response to it. And it is there where these come together that we have the myths. The outer world changes with historical time, the inner world is the world of anthropos. The mythological systems are a constant, and what you are recognizing is your own inward life, and at the same time the inflection to history. The problem of making the inner meet the outer today is, of course, the function of the artist.”

He discusses the same phrase in The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and Religion and explains it slightly different: 

“From the outer world the senses carry images to the mind, which do not become myth, however, until there transformed by fusion with accordant insights, awakened as imagination from the inner world of the body.”
Joseph Campbell - The Inner Reaches of Outer Space

 Joseph Campbell earned the favor of artists, filmmakers, scholars and a world of readers. He believed the spiritual realm was not only timeless but universal and the insight hidden was entirely discoverable by anyone willing to work for it – and by work, he means, read. 

Independent Scholarship: Joseph Campbell on Reading Nine Hours a Day