Thursday, 6 March 2014

Three Reasons for Reading, and One for Quitting Half-Way Through

In February I spent two weeks grinding my way through a collection of essays in contemporary epistemology. I could have read at least three novels or pop non-fiction books in that time. And enjoyed the experience. It felt like a wasted month, especially compared to January. Why did I do it? Well, I’m a philosopher, and every now and then I should read some recent stuff. The only thing I got out of the experience was a resolution that I was only going to read the big names from now on.

Why do we read? For useful knowledge, as when I read a software product manual; for interest, as when I read about Renaissance warfare or the life and paintings of Gustav Caillebote; for guidance and ideas, as when I read books on problem-solving or game; to understand more about the world I live in, which is what the pop non-fiction does; or for entertainment, as a Jasper Fforde; or for that mixture of entertainment and information that happens when reading classic fiction, as Moll Flanders.

And there’s another reason: to challenge myself. That’s why I read lecture notes on Algebraic Geometry, or attempt the Phenomenology of Spirit (again), or now or books on modern art back in the Never-Minds. (I read Henry James when I was far too young on the same basis: it would be good for me. And while I found The Portrait of a Lady a huge drag, The Ambassadors and Roderick Hudson stay with me as excellent reading experiences.)

Finally, because I’m interested in art and literature, I read some books because they are legends in and of themselves. Why on earth else would anyone read Ulysses? I’m reading Maldoror, started and finished Proust, and banged my head against The Man Without Qualities, for this reason. I have read and forgotten many nineteenth-century novels on that basis. Call that duty reading.

Books are a way of getting knowledge that you would never get in life. A way for their writers to share experience, thoughts and knowledge, their fantasies and stories, with their readers. I choose books based on what it seems to offer, and most of the time, I’m a pretty good judge of a book from a few samples. Sometimes I get it wrong. When I realise I’ve got it wrong, I don’t throw the book away. I grind it out. Maybe I should be more willing to throw it out. After all, I spend as much on a meal, and that gets thrown away after twenty-four hours. And the point is that I could be reading something that entertains or informs me, and I’m not. I’m wasting time.

So what do I do in March? What I really want is something that’s absorbing enough to stop me looking out of the window during the commute. Start reading, and, OMG it’s time to get off the train! That’s always worth having.

No comments:

Post a Comment