||[Jun. 13th, 2015|05:26 pm]
Cleaning shelves today, I pulled down a down a book and found a marker in it -- one I placed there, how many years ago? The top part of it that stuck out from between the pages was beaten by time and the crushings of many relocations, but when I opened the pages I found the rest of the marker clean. I knew I must have run my eyes over all that text, those words, at least up to that point at which boredom or exhaustion overtook me, a piece of an old manilla folder came to hand, was ripped in two and inserted between the pages, and that was that. But looking at it now, I realized with shame that I remember none of it: not the slightest word, not a phrase, not even what the book itself was generally supposed to be about, except in the vague summary way that I might have got by scanning the promissory words, and testimonials from unknown people printed on the back cover. |
And what good did they do me, all those printed words, and why have I carried them along? What vanity, what bootless stuff. Discourses on the foundations of heaven and earth, and learned analyses of the arguments of others upon those things (i.e. physics and metaphysics). A straightforward person would have suggested that this was an excellent opportunity to unburden: throw the book in the trash and have done with it. But my books are my biography; looking at them tells me something about who I was, and what I have become. I put the marker back, slid the book into its place on the shelf and continued dusting.
It seems to me now that there are only four reasons to read a book -- though like all such precepts they shade into one another and are rarely found pure, and any single person will probably not experience all of them:
The first is nakedly instrumental: one reads in order to fix a car, to pass a test, to interpret candlestick charts of equity prices, and so on. One reads with something else in mind, something in the future, something that will offer a good return on investment. It is a necessary and reasonable thing to do, and the best approach we can adopt is to think out, clearly in advance, exactly what we hope to attain from such reading, because that is all we will attain from it. Sorrow for the person who reads in this way not to obtain the future, but to escape the present.
The second is social: we read because we want to be conversant with the political and philosophical whims of our time, or -- in a better sense -- with the exposition of the governing principles of whatever group of people we are trying to work with. In either case it is to better enable us to participate in dialogue with others, whether for the noble purpose of achieving some difficult collective goal, or for the vain and trivial one of impressing and criticizing those whose opinions differ from our own. A regrettable watershed is passed at the point one discovers, usually well before age thirty, that most of the social value of a such a book can be had by simply owning it and displaying it in a place where guests can see it. I knew a man who kept a whole shelf of the works of Henry Kissenger for just this purpose, praised them with fervor, and never read a line of any one of them. After he died I came into possession of these books and promptly sold them for a very small amount of money. It should go without saying that many unread religious books line such shelves, but this testifies more to the common weakness of humanity, than to the personal sincerity of their owner.
The third reason that we might spend our energy and time -- which are the only real wealth we have, and which both pass away at a measured rate no matter what we do -- to read a piece of writing is to experience the beauty of the written language, for its rhetoric and charm. For the purpose of this essay I use the word 'beauty' in a deliberately vague sense: there are different kinds of it, prompting a range of different emotional experiences, and so the junk-food fiction whose highest praise is "I just can't put it down", and the mean-minded works that only validate the worst of our opinions, also fall into this category, along with those that heal and console. Writing and reading are strange misapplications of powers that developed in the human brain for other purposes, but they allow us to create forms of rhetoric that would be impossible to sustain by memory alone. However, in almost all cases even the most beautiful such rhetoric only touches us, and is soon gone from the mind. The person who reads some great work may, in all likelihood, get no more from it than the one who reads the latest cheap novel purchased to pass the time.
The fourth reason to read is to change oneself, to make oneself a better -- or at least a different -- kind of person. This is work. This is the reading of Holy Scripture, whether the chosen scripture be traditional, or one of the works that are called fiction (as some of the traditional ones were called for many centuries), or the poetry of some bearded renegade from the 1960s. Scriptural reading means re-reading, and repeatedly meditating on the contents of the work, especially on those passages that challenge, frighten or irritate us, because any book that is worth making part of our life -- like any person who is worth making part of our life -- will sometimes do all three of those things. It is not a matter to be entered into lightly, because it implies discarding other works we might have read, for the sake of reading this one again. And if done correctly, it moves us ever more into the company of others who read the same, and whose lives have been tinged by the tincture of the same works. We become one thing and not another -- which is in fact the normal process of life, much though we may dislike it. Scriptural reading, done rightly, allows us some opportunity to shape who we become, who we grow into -- for it is in the nature of humanity that we are, each of us, a creature who might have lived many different kinds of lives, but who must, in this world, live only one.