December is the season of lists – resolutions for next year, favourite movies of the year, most interesting Twitter handles discovered, places visited, governments toppled, and so on. Several book lists are also floated around at this time. Some, usually from academics, are short and focused on a specialty. Others meander and are sometimes probably too long to have truly done their readers any good – as if they were more to secure bragging rights rather than be helpful recommendations. More is not necessarily better, and neither is it quicker.
How we read is strongly correlated to why we read, which also defines what we read. I suspect more of us will become discerning about our choices when we realise that the majority of us will get to read only about a little over 3,600 books over the span of our lives – this is the case assuming one starts a serious reading habit by the age of 10, reads a book a week for the rest of one’s life, and lives until 80. This limit to our reading adds a different perspective – perhaps adds a tinge of urgency or importance – to what we read and how we read it.
There is a sense of satisfaction, I will admit, in reviewing a list of books you have ploughed through over the year. A couple of years ago, I caught myself slipping into this false sense of achievement, conflating quantity with quality because it offered a soothing empiricism that really could not exist. Reading three to four books a week, however, left little time for contemplation. I could get away with reading quickly in graduate school because all my friends were either professors or graduate students. Constant discussion and debate reduced the need for private rumination. Now, however, the lack of a deep experience of the book or a total immersion in the subject matter left me unhappy with my reading. In order to live more, I had forgotten to live well.
It was by deliberately immersing myself in a book that I regained the pleasure of reading. Careful and slow reading with deep attention and sometimes repetition gives the reader more time to explore the nuances of the author’s words. This is easier said than done, though – study after study tells us that the average attention span these days has shrunk and fewer readers make it to the conclusion of an article. In order to read more, we have also become less attentive to details and argument. Nothing exemplifies this crisis in reading more than a 2007 book by the French professor of literature, Pierre Bayard, called Comment parler des livres que l'on n'a pas lus? (How To Talk About Books That You Have Not Read). Deliberate readers of books, then, are a rare species.
What this means is that readers today have become good accumulators of factoids but their comprehension skills, attention to context and relations, and contemplation have all suffered. Reading skills that were commonplace even in the early 1990s, such as oral performance, memorisation, a critical eye, and annotation, have all but disappeared. Studies have shown that committing poetry or even particularly poignant prose to memory, beyond its purely aesthetic appeal, has significant benefits in terms of language acquisition and expression.
Another advantage of reading slowly is its effect on writing. Allowing well-written text to gestate in the mind enables an integration of interesting turns of phrase or sentence patterns into the reader’s own style. We have long been told that the best way to improve our writing is to read well; that applies not just to what we read but also how we read. Skimming, as most people are wont to do nowadays, is not conducive to fostering this absorption of ideas and style.
Of course, the fast-slow dichotomy is an over-simplified model of how we read. There are different kinds of books as there are several types of readers. Bruce Hoffman’s Anonymous Soldiers, for example, is an excellent book that is more data-heavy than Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, which is again in a different class from Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Then there are works like the Aeneid, Mahabharata, or the Pirkei Avot, which merit several re-reads over the years. We read for education, entertainment, or for joy, and our speed and attention varies with each of these.
Regardless, the implicit hope in reading is that we imbibe and process the knowledge and values books offer and gain a modicum of maturity and wisdom. There is no profit to be had from becoming a foremost scholar of Jewish philosophy if at least some of the ideas of Moshe ben Maimon, Baruch Spinoza, or some other thinker do not enrich your life. That admonition you have heard all your life – do not judge a book by its cover – was not entirely wrong, but it was horribly phrased. It is simply impossible to read all the books you want to, and filters must weed out the mountain of books that might be interesting or useful to make room for those that will certainly add value. Of course, care would be advised to ensure that our selection process is based on criteria other than ideology for well-rounded development.
Given the limits to our reading, it is not wise to read books we do not like simply because we are “supposed to know them”. I have never been a fan of Victorian literature (including the Regency), for example, and the only works I have read from that period are the ones that were forced upon me in school. It is not a lacuna in my reading because I compensated with literature I do like, and those who made time for Austen, Dickens, Eliot, and Hardy could not for Goethe, Leopardi, Poquelin, and Rilke. Our sense of what we are “supposed to know” is fluid and depends on language and geography.
A healthy reading plan should balance books for the here and now with books that will stay with you for the rest of your life. It is inevitable that some of our reading is spent on learning more about the world – What is the root of the Arab-Israeli conflict? What is France’s place in the NATO? How did ancient civilisations get intoxicated? What does a manned mission to Mars entail? As food for the soul, there should also be some books that ask the bigger questions – What is beauty? Do we have souls? How should society be structured? Is life equal? The first part is more defined, easier to comprehend, and the books have helpful titles. The second part, however, is challenging and usually gleaned from a lifelong reading of philosophy and literature.
Like any good habit, a healthy reading habit takes effort. One hears that technology has not made reading any easier, providing ample distractions and training us to think only 280 characters at a time. There is some truth to this, but careless reading is a problem that goes back much further than the twenty-first century – Shakespeare’s First Folio urged us to read the playwright “again and again” until we understand him. Friedrich Nietzsche called himself “a teacher of slow reading” in 1886, and Ivor Richards popularised close reading in the 1920s.
So, for the coming year, if one of your resolutions is to read more books, remember – it is better to read slowly, critically, and engage with the text and understand the author than to acquire a passing familiarity with a catalogue of books. Read what you enjoy and diversify your selections; read for the mind as well as the soul. Much like food, good books read well will stay with you for life.
Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.
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