Is Reading Selfish?
I recently discovered a kindred spirit in Maureen Corrigan, author of Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books. As a Georgetown professor and book reviewer for NPR’s “Fresh Air” program, Corrigan is lucky enough to make a living by reading and then writing (and talking) about what she’s read. The very first lines of her book convinced me that I’d found a like-minded soul: “It’s not that I don’t like people. It’s just that when I’m in the company of others – even my nearest and dearest – there always comes a moment when I’d rather be reading a book.” I couldn’t agree more.
As a lifelong introvert and bibliophile, I often find myself longing to retreat from a family gathering or noisy party and go somewhere quiet where it’s just me and a book. Yet I occasionally feel a twinge of guilt and wonder to myself: is reading selfish? Should I be forcing myself to engage with the world and restricting reading to times when I am naturally alone and in a quiet environment? Or is creating a solitary space for reading my way of coping with a busy, noisy world I sometimes find overwhelming? With the help of Corrigan and “Read All Day” blogger Nina Sankovitch, as well as Susan Cain, author of the wonderful (and vindicating) Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, I hope to persuade you that reading is a therapeutic and necessary activity for creative introverts.
Reading as solitary
A couple weeks ago I looked at programs for reading together; while it’s certainly true that reading aloud or with other people constitutes a special pleasure that is rewarding in its own way, reading is generally a solitary – and silent – pursuit.
Although reading aloud was standard practice in ancient times, in about the fourth century CE it began to cede to silent reading. In his enlightening A History of Reading, Alberto Manguel recounts St. Augustine’s visit to Ambrose, bishop of Milan, in 383 CE. Augustine remarked in his Confessions on Ambrose’s (for the time) unusual method of reading: “his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still.” To a medieval scholar, this private reading experience was noteworthy, but Manguel observes that it is now the norm: “Like Ambrose, the reader has become deaf and blind to the world, to the passing crowds…withdrawn, intent, the reader becomes commonplace.”
In some of the paintings that illustrate this post, and perhaps in the public mindset too, holding up a book creates a sort of bubble around the reader – an invisible, permeable yet undeniable barrier between her and the rest of the world. It discourages interruption and acts as a kind of buffer between self and others. In P.F. Kluge’s 2009 novel Biggest Elvis, the title character praises his sweetheart as
“The kind of woman who always brings something along to read because she might get bored, the book is like a warning to the world she’s in, that if the people she’s with aren’t up to expectations, in a minute she’s out of here…”
A book can function as a talisman to ward off boredom, or even perhaps, more pointedly, boring people and situations.
But does this make the reader look arrogant, like a poor sport who won’t suffer even a few moments of lag time before returning to the page? One of my friends was such an obsessive reader in high school that when she gave me rides home she would keep a fantasy novel in the door pocket and pick it up to snatch a page or two at every red light. (I take this behavior as no reflection on the pleasure of my company, by the way, merely as proof of the extent of my friend’s book addiction!) All the same, I do wonder what it says about me that I always have a book at the ready – like a sword ready to be drawn against idleness – and that my first instinct is to withdraw into reading rather than look for stimulation in the outside world. I certainly sympathize with what essayist Logan Pearsall Smith wrote in Afterthoughts (1931): “People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.”
Artists and introverts
For people who read and write for a living, creating a personal realm of seclusion and silence may well be essential. Corrigan refers to reading as a “necessary solitude” and “essentially an antisocial and even voluptuous indulgence.” Growing up, she avoided social situations such as dating; “Given the choice, I’d always opt for staying home and reading a book.” And even as an adult, despite the multiple joys of interacting with a large social circle and her extended family, Corrigan insists “I would go nuts if I couldn’t go off by myself regularly to read.”
One of the recurring themes of Cain’s Quiet is that artists need solitude to do their best work. As Franz Kafka wrote (in a January 15, 1913 letter to Felice Bauer), “one can never be alone enough when one writes.” Independence can be conducive to creativity and allows time for “deliberate practice” – after all, experts estimate that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve greatness in an artistic field. Cain also cites Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, a hybrid artist-scientist figure, who contends that “Artists work best alone.” Modern workplaces may prioritize teamwork and the benefits of open-plan working, but for introverts to get their finest work done, they must have time and space to concentrate on their own projects.
The extrovert ideal
Although Western culture values the “Extrovert Ideal” of people skills and self-promotion, Cain reveals that one out of every two or three Americans is an introvert (so much for the myth of universal American friendliness!). By nature introverts are thinkers who work slowly and deliberately and prefer to focus on one thing at a time; they enjoy deep discussions but not small talk.
Cain traces the idolizing of extroverts to 1920s America, when what she calls the “Culture of Character” was replaced by a “Culture of Personality.” Gradually it began to seem that private behavior, discipline, and honor counted less than the impression one made in public. The rise of glamorous Hollywood stars, as well as the self-help gospel found in books like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), fed into the charismatic personality cult that has required nearly all U.S. presidents (bar, perhaps, John Quincy Adams) to be extroverts. By contrast, many of the most successful CEOs (including Wozniak and Bill Gates) could be termed introverts.
So although Cain conveys a reassuring “I’m okay, you’re okay” message for introverts, backed up with plenty of strong evidence, at the same time she notes that there will always be occasions when introverts need to stretch themselves to achieve their goals. According to the “rubber band theory,” we can all choose to broaden our personalities – but only so much. Even shy people can fake extroversion to some extent; as Cain argues, “introverts are capable of acting like extroverts for the sake of work they consider important, people they love, or anything they value highly.” If introverts’ work requires them to challenge themselves significantly (by doing public speaking, for instance), they will need to find what Cain dubs “restorative niches” where they can withdraw to be themselves, whether that be a literal nook (a quiet, private office, if you are so lucky as to have one – even now women need Virginia Woolf’s proverbial ‘room of one’s own’), or more metaphorical solace in tasks like writing, reading, and researching. Acting ‘out of character’ for too long can cause an introvert to suffer stress and illness, so it is important to acknowledge one’s natural tendencies.
(Take this quiz linked to Cain’s website to see where you fall on her scale of introversion. I scored 17 out of 20; is it any wonder I am always to be found with my nose in a book?)
Read All Day
I had occasion to ponder the selfishness of reading last year when I read Nina Sankovitch’s Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading. During her 43rd year (from October 2008 through October 2009), Sankovitch read a whole book every day, and posted a review of each one on her blog the following day. (That’s three hundred and sixty-five books in one year – can you imagine!? Even 2012, my most prolific reading year, topped out at only 255 titles read.)
Sankovitch defends her year of reading by painting it as a therapeutic pursuit, a way back into fullness of life after several years of grieving for her sister Anne-Marie, who died at age 46 after a brutally swift battle with bile duct cancer. Reading, she says, reminds her that there is beauty in life, particularly acts of arbitrary kindness and goodness. It makes her feel closer to her sister, because the whole family (made up of immigrants from Belgium and Belarus, some of whom died tragically in Second World War genocides) loved reading and shared favorite books. Moreover, reading gives her the mental space, quiet, and time to concentrate on things of the spirit, and then allows her to enter into a worldwide conversation about books through her website.
Doth the lady protest too much? Does she really need so many justifications for her project? If it is a fundamentally selfish quest, for personal pleasure and development, why not just characterize it as such? Does the fact that she so ardently pinpoints worthy reasons for the book-quest point to a fear that she would be thought selfish for ignoring her family for a year and focusing on her own self-development? Sankovitch’s prose can get rather sentimental when she rhapsodizes about both the power of books and the loss of her sister: “When I needed to read the most, books gave me everything I asked for and more. My year of reading gave me the space I needed to figure out how to live again after losing my sister.”
Sankovitch was lucky, of course, to have the kind of circumstances that allowed her to devote a year to compulsive reading. Her husband’s steady job, their established household, and her break from a successful career in environmental law all meant that she had money at her disposal. Though she has four children and a stepdaughter, they were in school all day and fairly self-sufficient, thus giving her a dependable block of work time every weekday. Everything came together to convince her that she could really do this properly, committing hours and energy and putting it all to a purpose through her daily book reviews.
It is intriguing, in any case, to see how Sankovitch chose the books for her reading challenge. She used what she called the “inch test” – the text block could be no wider than one inch, corresponding to roughly 250 to 300 pages. At an estimated reading rate of 70 pages per hour, she budgeted four hours for reading each book, and two hours the following morning for writing up her review. She placed only a few limitations on herself, to promote diversity: there could be only one title per author, nothing she’d read before, and nothing too canonical. Once she opened the book, she gave it just 10 pages (as opposed to Nancy Pearl’s “Rule of 50”) to grip her, and gave up on anything that didn’t. Her year list is heavy on books in translation and magic realism, which makes for an overall very multicultural selection. Her varied reading is grouped around themes (some a touch clichéd) such as the power of love, surprising instances of beauty and joy, and fear and acceptance of death.
Even though Tolstoy and the Purple Chair has its moments of banality and schmaltz, and is, I feel, overall unworthy of comparison with the Joan Didion book it clearly seeks to echo (Didion’s 2007 memoir of her husband’s death was entitled The Year of Magical Thinking), it is nonetheless an enjoyable read and will give any eager reader quite a few ideas of new books and authors to try. Sankovitch’s website is also a great resource for finding out about interesting books, and will leave the reader feeling justified in the aim of adding as much reading time to a day as is humanly possible.
As Sankovitch found after the death of her sister, reading can be a method of self-recovery. Even for those of us (introverts or not) who do not have a trauma to recover from, but who perhaps find daily life a struggle all the same, books can function as a temporary retreat center where we step outside of the busyness of work and the noise of relationships to focus for a little while on regaining our composure. The French phrase reculer pour mieux sauter seems particularly apt here: sometimes pulling back from life for a while is just what you need to launch yourself back into it with increased vigor later on.
Lest I seem to be avoiding the very question I started with, I will return to it now: is reading selfish? To sidestep only a little, I wish to draw a distinction between selfishness and self-development. Although living an ethical life is all about how we live in relation to other people (even, and especially, those we will never meet), forming personal character and morality is a necessary first step. And books can play a major role in making us decent people with a strong sense of empathy, as I discussed way back when I first asked the question “why read?” Once again I recall that striking line in Ben Fountain’s novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, when a character defends his obsessive reading with the claim “I am constructing my personality.”
Through bibliotherapy we can start to see ourselves as part of the human race, in all its diversity and strangeness. So rather than seeing the reader’s quest as selfish, I prefer to think of it as an essential and ongoing stage on the road towards compassion. In addition, while ‘selfishness’ implies that one is making a choice to focus on the self in opposition to others, for bibliophiles reading isn’t really a choice at all. It’s a drive, an addiction, a compulsion – there is really nothing voluntary about it. And for those who fall more on the introvert side of the scale, periodic withdrawals into the world of books may be just the rest and recovery periods we need to go back out and face the real world once again.