I've been thinking about reading, and (as one does) got my Google finger out, and have been going through "reading quotations". That is: what has been memorably claimed about reading, and by whom? It's an interesting and surprisingly infuriating process.
Take this, for example. Maxim Gorky once claimed that "everything which is good in me should be credited to books". You find this quoted a lot, as if it carried some generalisable weight. Yet I don't believe it can be true, quite, even of Maxim Gorky, who led an intermittently miserable life. It's a blind and callous thing to say. What about the influences of his family (particularly his grandmother), or his many friends? Nothing good whatsoever emanated from them? If I were his father I'd give him such a slap. You good-for-nothing thankless Gorky you, you book-ridden ingrate, you louse…
But, of course, one recognises this sort of overstatement. You have to feel passionately about a subject to talk this foolishly about it. An astonishing number of "lovers" of books and of reading frequently say similarly questionable things, at least if you quote them out of context – which is what people tend to do. I'm doing it too.
Let's take the following, by way of almost random example, from Charles Kingsley: "Except a living man, there is nothing more wonderful than a book." Gosh. Any living man? Any book? Nothing else can compete? Flowers? Sunsets? Palladian villas? Pastrami sandwiches with extra pickles? Rubbish. One remembers Norman Mailer's definition of a "conservative" as one who, given a choice between saving the life of a man and that of a tree, will ask to view the tree and to meet the man before making his decision. You have to look at what is in front of your nose, after all. It's not too much to ask.
And then we have this, from Somerset Maugham: "To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all of the miseries of life." Well, almost all? I wonder which miseries reading is a refuge from, and which not? And if it is such an escape, are we not likely to doubt that what we were protected from was not a misery, but an inconvenience or an occasional source of bad temper? I suspect that a good definition of "misery" might well be "pain so acute that even reading will not assuage it". I'd be surprised if reading provided a "refuge" from the pains of toothache, colic, or childbirth, the deaths of loved ones, the decline into dementia, the experience of war, famine, or grinding poverty, or the relegation of Coventry City FC.
The difference between pain and pleasure is that the former overwhelms the latter, but no amount of white truffles, operatic arias or sex will drive away the agony of a bad toothache, much less the pain of the death of a loved one. And a good book certainly won't get close. Why claim that it might, or can? This seems to me to signal the same sort of doubts that underlie the most fervent of religious doctrines.
Or – if you will indulge me – whatever do you make of this? "He who destroys a good book kills reason itself." That is John Milton at his most unsatisfactory. Destroy a good book and you may destroy an instance of good reason, but presumably there are other copies of the book around to reassert it. Or maybe he means "(the only known copy of) a good book"? But that is simply silly. And though "reason" was then a more endangered form of discourse, even, than it is now, there's no reason to go all hysterical about the destruction of a given book, no matter how good. But "the destruction of one book presages the destruction of all"? Rubbish. Even at those occasional times and places where this has seemed to be true, and books have been burned, it has always turned out not to be. Reason, as shaky a foundation as it may be, is reassuringly capable of eventually withstanding the most profound shocks.
But, surely, reading widens and enhances our sense of life? That must be what Milton is driving at? It is a common enough motif. Here are two nice examples:
"Reading maketh a full man." (Francis Bacon)
"We read to know we are not alone." (CS Lewis)
You feel sympathetic to the underlying feeling, but – honestly! – what total cod. These are the sort of sentiments that headmasters of the dreariest type express at parents' evenings. And what an appalling set of implications is posited for the unlettered, however kindly of disposition, whatever their achievements in the humble reaches of the heart. You can't read? Then, implies Mr Lewis, you presumably believe that we are alone? Poor old illiterates, stripped in a trice of the love and affection of friends and family, sundered from a God whom one does not have to read about to believe in. And presumably it is at least an implication of Bacon's dictum that our poor illiterate lonely hordes are neither companied nor "full", for reading accomplisheth fullness.
I know what I think this is full of. Of arrogance, and pomposity, and what Philip Larkin liked to call the smell of bum. Here's a nice little exercise: find a book, or an article, or a website that has quotes about "books", or "reading", or "literature". Look through the examples, and ask yourself how many of these self-consciously citeable sentiments actually make sense? Because the instances I have quoted are chosen almost casually from a myriad competing instances of overstatement, false generalisation, self-congratulation and self-deception, pure silliness, inanity.
To see intelligent persons expressing themselves in such a loose and foolish manner elsewhere, you have to look at similarly dubious encomia regarding God, or love, or politics. To become this stupid you have to care a lot. I know, of course, that such condensed statements are tropes, and rallying cries. We talk like this, with this unconditioned enthusiasm, about what we most care about, and wish everyone to share. We over-simplify and hyperbolise in the hope of convincing both ourselves and others. This is rhetoric, which is too often the opposite of thinking.
One might argue that literacy is unalloyedly a good thing – yes, I can think of counter-examples, but then again one always can – but it is pretty clear to me that reading, as in reading of literature, is not. What we read can affect us vitally, penetrate, stimulate and inform us, but not always in the right ways, or at the right times, or about the right things.
If you think that reading the right things in the right ways is morally bracing, improves one's discriminations and heightens sensitivity – basically, the Leavis line – then all you have to do is look at the behaviour of Dr Leavis himself to begin to doubt the thesis. Indeed, if it were true that wide and deep reading redounds wholly positively on the development of a wholesome self, consider a typical member of a university English department, and despair.
I come from a country in which it is widely felt that there is no problem so intractable that a slogan won't solve it. "Say No to Drugs!" (This in the most neurotically hyper-medicated country in the world.) Or "It's Good to Read!" As if reading were a tonic, form of exercise, or vegetable. But the notion of seeking what is "good for you" is somehow thin and inadequate here, as if drawn from the vocabulary of an evangelical huckster, personal trainer, or nutritionist.
Reading is more important than that. Sometimes we are enhanced by it, at others diminished. We need to be able to think carefully about this, and to talk about it more accurately. As Larkin put it: "I should never call myself a book lover any more than a people lover. It all depends what's inside them."
If there seems something nit-picky and literal minded about my responses to our reading sages – seems like it even to me – it is because I am out of patience with generalisation and high rhetoric, with those forms of discourse that are heavily dependent on the verb to be: A book is this or that. The essence of reading is the following. The nature of x is y.
I don't want to go all Wittgensteinian on you – at least not here – but there are surely better ways to talk about, and to recommend, those things that most matter to us. To keep to the text or the question, to distinguish difference rather than posit similarity, to avoid generalisation. To particularise. To keep one's eye, and finger, on the page.
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