What is reading for?

What is the true point of a bookish life? Note I write “point,” not “goal.” The bookish life can have no goal: It is all means and no end. The point, I should say, is not to become immensely knowledgeable or clever, and certainly not to become learned. Montaigne, who more than five centuries ago established the modern essay, grasped the point when he wrote, “I may be a man of fairly wide reading, but I retain nothing.” Retention of everything one reads, along with being mentally impossible, would only crowd and ultimately cramp one’s mind. “I would very much love to grasp things with a complete understanding,” Montaigne wrote, “but I cannot bring myself to pay the high cost of doing so. . . . From books all I seek is to give myself pleasure by an honorable pastime; or if I do study, I seek only that branch of learning which deals with knowing myself and which teaches me how to live and die well.” What Montaigne sought in his reading, as does anyone who has thought at all about it, is “to become more wise, not more learned or more eloquent.” As I put it elsewhere some years ago, I read for the pleasures of style and in the hope of “laughter, exaltation, insight, enhanced consciousness,” and, like Montaigne, on lucky days perhaps to pick up a touch of wisdom along the way.

Joseph Epstein – “The Bookish Life

My struggle with reading is my desire to attain absolute knowledge. I want to be “immensely knowledgeable or clever” and “learned.” The reality is often the opposite when it comes to reading — we rarely fully retain the information we take in. If I’m lucky, I’ll remember a snip from a passage and where it’s located in a book. Reading, instead, is for gaining wisdom, for being formed a certain way. Not so that our objectivity is changed (i.e., our distanced knowledge), but so that our subjectivity is changed. We need the our perception of the world to be shifted, and our actions toward the world and toward others to move in response to what we read.

Forgetting How to Read

Books were once my refuge. To be in bed with a Highsmith novel was a salve. To read was to disappear, become enrobed in something beyond my own jittery ego. To read was to shutter myself and, in so doing, discover a larger experience. I do think old, book-oriented styles of reading opened the world to me – by closing it. And new, screen-oriented styles of reading seem to have the opposite effect: They close the world to me, by opening it.

I Have Forgotten How to Read” – Michael Harris

Harris’s words cut deep. My research and writing on Kierkegaard, while satisfying in some ways, has been a constant, subtle rebuke of my intellect. Every time I sit down to read (especially when I was reading Either/Or… my God!), I’m reminded, not only of my lack of focus, but of my relative inability to follow a long train of thought that circles around a conclusion in order to make a point. In internet-modernity, we have been trained to scan the words of a document or a journalistic piece for its facts, its tweetable thoughts, its “main idea.” Harris again:

The resonance of printed books – their lineal structure, the demands they make on our attention – touches every corner of the world we’ve inherited. But online life makes me into a different kind of reader – a cynical one. I scrounge, now, for the useful fact; I zero in on the shareable link. My attention – and thus my experience – fractures. Online reading is about clicks, and comments, and points. When I take that mindset and try to apply it to a beaten-up paperback, my mind bucks.

Harris indicates later that it’s actually surprising that we were ever readers of print books at all. Our “natural” state, he says is one of distraction and a shifting gaze because of the environment in which humans evolved (needing to survey the landscape for danger, etc.). This, I think, is a short-sell on what humans are meant to be. It may be our “natural” tendency to be distracted. It may be that our animal instincts pull us toward the inability to form coherent and significant thoughts, and understand the thoughts of other humans. But an understanding of humanity that believes that humans are more than their natural instincts should instead interpret the current state of affairs as though humans are missing something.

Coincidentally, that’s exactly what Harris indicates by writing this piece. Despite the fact that he believes humans are perhaps reverting to their “natural” states, his bemoaning of the current state of affairs indicates that he knows a deeper truths about what humans ought to be.

Reading Just to Read

I have pretty much finished up my fall semester work, which means I’m heading into a time when I’ll actually have true free time on my hands after my kids go to sleep in the evenings. Because of this, I have resolved to do a little more reading over the break – some of which will be pre-reading for my thesis, but most of which will be pleasure-reading.

On the advice of a friend, I picked up The Godfather (the novel, not the movie). I am in the wonderful position of having never seen the movie, and I didn’t even know there was a book. I just finished Book I of the novel, and this is one of those “How have I not heard of this book before?” moments. I love that it’s out of my normal wheelhouse of novels I read (crime dramas aren’t necessarily my thing).

Anyway, it’ll be nice to spend some time during this break reading things that are a little easier to get through than a book like Sources of the Self by Charles Taylor. I’ve resolved to not waste my entire break away by watching Netflix. We’ll see how that goes.