What to read? (Part 1) Why read?
For those of us whose university days are in the past, for whom books are now non-obligatory, what is the point of reading? Is it now just an escapist leisure activity, or should it be a tool for continuing one’s learning? So: a homogeneous binge on whatever you like best, be that country house murder mysteries or fantasy epics, or a varied diet of philosophy, theology, science, mathematics, and the cream of the literary crop? Stephen King or Cicero? The Hunger Games or Ulysses?
Bibliotherapy posits that you can read to find cures for what ails you, bodily or metaphysically; the classical theory of catharsis suggests you read what you find unpleasant – in the way of unremitting tragedy – to bring you uplift; and literary critics or universities with Great Books programs might urge you to follow a formal curriculum for reading through the canon of world literature. Meanwhile, should you persist with a book you’re finding difficult? Even if you’d rather be reading almost anything else, do you give up? In this weekly series I’d like to explore some of the historical propositions for deciding what to read, when; and think about how to strike a balance between education and entertainment.
But first, why should we read at all? It seems to me that there could be a whole hierarchy of reasons, starting from the most basic and practical and moving up to ‘higher’, even spiritual aims. If the simplest reason for reading is to glean information about a topic, this can be achieved through a newspaper, an online encyclopedia, or the merest glance through a textbook; to truly engage with a book is another thing entirely.
For some, reading might be a chosen activity for the sheer pleasure of it. Particularly in the case of fiction, books can be a means of escaping from our everyday lives of commuting hell and office drudgery. We might find that encountering authors’ ideas stimulates our own creativity, making us think differently about things we always thought we understood, or giving us the impetus to make works of art ourselves. Indeed, Marilynne Robinson attributes her eloquence as an author to the myriad examples she encountered in literature: “The frontiers of the unsayable, and the avenues of approach to those frontiers, have been opened for me by every book I have ever read that was in any degree ambitious, earnest, or imaginative” (from “Imagination and Community” in her essay collection When I Was a Child I Read Books).
However, through the centuries many have argued that reading for aesthetic pleasure is not enough. Rather, reading is a solemn duty to be undertaken for one’s continuing mental and moral education. As Harold Bloom asks rhetorically in the preface to How to Read and Why, “Information is endlessly available to us; where shall wisdom be found?” Perhaps starting with the veneration of sacred scriptures such as the Bible and the Koran, scholars have looked to books for their capacity to impart lessons in discernment and ethical living. A course of edifying reading might just aid development into a more moral and compassionate individual.
I believe that novels especially can be a great tool for teaching empathy. We only get one life – one subjectivity with which to see the world – but through reading novels we can explore a nearly infinite number of different lives that we would hardly be able to imagine otherwise. Editor and memoirist Diana Athill confirms that “books have been my windows on to vast tracts of experience, both destructive and creative, in which I have not lived” (Instead of a Letter). Understanding other people and other viewpoints reduces their strangeness and makes us less likely to resort to stereotypes and uninformed prejudice. By investigating other points of view, we are reminded that “there are no easy answers, never only one meaning or perspective. Literature insists on interpretation, on point of view, on polysemy.” (Karen Newman, “Why Literature Now?”)
Yet at the same time that it exposes us to a variety of ideas and experiences, literature also reassures us that, when it really comes down to it, we are all essentially the same. The human condition is universal, inescapable. Novelist Mark Haddon confides, “I am always in search of novels that understand and articulate precisely what it feels like to be a human being,” and when he finds those moments of brilliance that elucidate life completely – as he does when reading Virginia Woolf – he rejoices, “Yes, yes, that is precisely what it is like to think and feel” (from “The Right Words in the Right Order,” Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!). To know that our wayward thoughts and behaviors are not only understandable but natural, that we are only exhibiting all the flaws that flesh is heir to, can be a healing assurance. We are not alone. This is, in part, what bibliotherapy is all about, a topic I’ll come back to later in the series.
Literature may be an effective means of understanding the Other, but it is also a way of developing the self. Reading is something of a selfish activity, really: it’s usually undertaken alone and in silence, and you might be the only one to ever benefit directly from it. I was struck by a scene in Ben Fountain’s novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk in which the character Shroom defends his obsessive reading with the claim “I am constructing my personality.” It is as if reading forms a personal quest, the destination of which is a fuller life. In Literary Taste, a must-read handbook for the ardent bibliophile, Arnold Bennett (over)states his vision of the reader’s journey thus: “it is to awake oneself, it is to be alive, to intensify one’s capacity for pleasure, for sympathy, and for comprehension…It is to change utterly one’s relations with the world.” Bennett paints the non-reader as an unenlightened automaton, or even an animal: “he who has not been ‘presented to the freedom’ of literature has not wakened up out of his prenatal sleep…He can’t see; he can’t hear; he can’t feel, in any full sense. He can only eat his dinner.”
And so there are many reasons to read: to learn new facts, to pass the time pleasantly, to discover wells of creativity, to build sympathy with others, to feel fellowship with the human race, to develop into a more complete person. But we Bookkaholics don’t really need any of these justifications for what we do. As Virginia Woolf put it, “who reads to bring about an end, however desirable? Are there not some pursuits that we practise because they are good in themselves, and some pleasures that are final?” (“How Should One Read a Book?” from The Common Reader, Second Series). We read simply because we must – but if anyone asks, we’ll have plenty of good excuses to hand.