3 Reasons Every Autodidact Should Read “Martin Eden”

Struggling to hit your reading goals? 

Need a little boost of motivation on your self-education journey? 

Well have I got the book for you— it happens to be my favorite novel. 

Martin Eden (1909) is a semi-autobiographical novel by Jack London that tells the story of a curious and motivated sailor’s arduous climb into America’s upper class, where he is determined to make it as a self-taught intellectual and writer. 

“Never had the spirit of adventure lured him more strongly than on this amazing exploration of the realm of the mind.” — Martin Eden, Jack London

To the aspiring autodidact, the book is a great source of insight and inspiration, providing an exemplary autodidact to learn from, root for, and emulate (within reason, of course).  

Watch an Effective Autodidact at Work

In the story, you get to watch Martin study hard and progress intellectually, gaining expertise in various fields of knowledge and expressing himself in an increasingly articulate manner, both in writing and speech, with every stack of books he devours. 

“And his next thought was that he had been phrasing his ideas very well.” “Never had he so loftily framed a lofty thought.” — Martin Eden, Jack London

The book is also a source of comfort, a pat on the back telling you to keep going despite the challenges you face. 

Watch an Autodidact Overcome Common Challenges

For in addition to his successes, you also get to see his struggles (check out my self-learning mistakes), which you may face yourself if you take on the task of self-directed study: 

For example, here’s Martin recounting his first week of autodidactism: 

“It seemed to him, by the end of the week, that he had lived centuries, so far behind him were the old life and outlook. But he was baffled by lack of preparation. He attempted to read books that required years of preliminary specialization. One day he would read a book of antiquated philosophy, and the next day one that was ultra-modern, so that his head would be whirling with the conflict and contradiction of ideas.” — Martin Eden, Jack London

Jack London is the perfect person to write such a book, as he is a self-taught writer and intellectual himself. 

The challenges London faced — lack of preparation, judgment by others, confusion, self-doubt — all appear in this wonderfully moving coming of age story. 

Below, The Art of Manliness’s Life of Jack London series documents London’s failure in his second attempt to become a writer, and what he did about it: 

“Perhaps I did need further preparation. I had learned enough from the books to realize that I had only touched the hem of knowledge’s garment. I still lived on the heights. My waking hours, and most of the hours I should have used for sleep, were spent with the books.” — Jack London

Martin Eden Reminds You That Hard Studying Pays Off 

No book has left more of an impression on me than Martin Eden. 

It’s a book I read once a year, so as to remind me of the purpose and value of self-education, and to give me a work ethic to aspire to. 

The parts that engage me the most are perhaps the episodes depicting Martin studying in his room. 

There are passages like this showing his self-study habits that just inspire me to try the same: 

“What, in a way, most impressed Martin, was the correlation of knowledge… He drew up lists of the most incongruous things and was unhappy until he succeeded in establishing kinship between them all…” — Martin Eden, Jack London 

I also love how he relentlessly pursues his self-education goals despite regular dissent from the people around him, who are supposedly smarter than him. 

For example, here he is telling an uppercrust love interest why he wants to pursue self-education instead of going back to school: 

“Knowledge seems to me like a chart-room. Whenever I go into the library, I am impressed that way. The part played by teachers is to teach the student the contents of the chart-room in a systematic way. The teachers are guides to the chart-room, that’s all. It’s not something that they have in their own heads. They don’t make it up, don’t create it… “I’ve spent a lot of time in the chart-room now, and I’m on the edge of knowing my way about, what charts I want to refer to, what coasts I want to explore. And from the way I line it up, I’ll explore a whole lot more quickly by myself.” — Martin Eden, Jack London

That committed rebellion against the societal status quo always fires me up, and this book is full of similar instances. 

Who Will Benefit From Reading Martin Eden?

“Every book was a peep-hole into the realm of knowledge. His hunger fed upon what he read, and increased.” — Martin Eden

Whether you just spend a bit of time each day reading, or you have goals to educate yourself in a subject or skill to the point of expertise, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

It’ll be an understanding companion to you as you navigate self-education, and a constant reminder of the beauty of knowledge and books. 

What better way to motivate yourself to study than to read about Martin do it hours upon hours every day, especially when you know that the person who wrote the book did the same throughout his career, to an unbelievable extent? 

“In truth, autodidactic-mode was London’s most natural setting – and he eagerly buckled in for what can only be called a superhuman effort. Holed up in a small room at the back of his parents’ house, he sat at a small table with a stack of books and old entrance exams, and studied for nineteen hours straight, seven days a week, for three months.” —  Art of Manliness 

I can’t do that and never will. All the adderall and nicotine in the world couldn’t make me that efficient. 

But, it’s a reminder of what’s possible if you set your mind to it. And that’s what Martin Eden, in the final analysis, is all about. 

Grab a copy of Martin Eden, and let the inspiration flood your soul. 

Oh, and if you like reading literature, check out my self-education roadmap for learning English Literature on your own. 

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After graduating college with an econ degree I realized I was still anything but well-educated. Over the last 4 years, I've been trying to fix that, autodidact-mode — by reading books and engaging in self-directed study across multiple subjects. On this blog, my goal is to share my learnings and help others get a well-rounded education outside of school. Education, after all, is a lifelong process, one well worth the investment.

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