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.

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