I’ve been writing a long essay called the “Joy of Reading in a Distracted World.” I don’t know why I started down this path, exactly. I have long lists of books I want to write. All I need is more time, more energy, some clarity in my thinking and a Muse.
Jefferson was a great reader, especially when he was a young man. I’m not sure we can really believe that he read 12 to 15 hours per day when he was in his late teens and 20s, but it is clear that for a time he was a very hard reader, and he copied out extracts into his literary commonplace book. He absorbed the whole corpus of the European and Scottish Enlightenments in those formative years, in several modern and two ancient languages.
But Jefferson was what might be called an “extractive” reader rather than a “sensuous” reader. I’ve just made up those categories, so I had better explain. With few exceptions, books were Jefferson’s internet. He read them to mine them for information. He was a data junkie. He greatly preferred non-fiction to fiction — to what might be called imaginative literature — and his view of fiction and poetry was purely conventional. Jefferson believed that literature needed to teach us virtue by the example of its depiction of morally admirable actions and people, and also its depiction of morally objectionable people and deeds.
To use a somewhat old-fashioned term, Jefferson was decidedly left-brained — analytical, rational, mathematical. When the right brain seeped through the adamantine walls that Jefferson erected to protect himself from pain — the art of happiness, he wrote, is the art of avoiding pain — he was always surprised by the intrusion and quick to dispatch a repair crew — like an anthill disturbed by a hiking boot.
Just how much Jefferson ever read for pleasure is hard to measure, but the answer seems to be not very much, at least after his public life began in the early 1770s. If you go searching for poetry and fiction that mattered to Jefferson, you wind up with the “Iliad,” “Don Quixote,” Ossian, “Tristram Shandy” and “Gulliver,” and not much more.
I know this will sound like heresy, but I do not regard Jefferson as a great reader, if only because he approached reading in such an instrumental, acquisitive way.
So let me ask, then, why do we read?
Here’s my own short list.
- We read for pleasure. I can honestly say that some of the happiest moments of my entire life have been spent in book one of “Gulliver’s Travels,” on the streets of London with Mr. Micawber and David Copperfield, with Hamlet at the grave of Ophelia, sharing Levin’s spiritual and existential agonies in “Anna Karenina,” with Thoreau on his hands and knees examining an epic battle between the red ants and the black ants.
- We read for information. I suppose most of my reading belongs to this category, though that doesn’t mean it isn’t also pleasurable. In the course of my life, I have read much more nonfiction than fiction. I take obsessive notes, type out quotations to remember or even memorize, construct timelines, photocopy passages I especially admire. I won’t give a list of the areas of knowledge I feel compelled to try to keep up with, but it is daunting. Some days, I just want to throw up my hands and work in a flower shop. Isaac Newton famously said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the sholders of Giants.” Jefferson said much the same thing. If I work hard enough at it, I can see the universe through the eyes of J. Robert Oppenheimer or Aristotle or Sylvia Plath.
- We read to explore worlds beyond our immediate experience. This would certainly be true of science fiction, but it is also true of whole swaths of more mainline fiction, poetry and even nonfiction. I’ve been reading a few books on Vladimir Putin’s Russia. I have never been there, except in the novels of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, but I have a better understanding of Russia thanks to the work of Gary Kasparov and Michael McFaul than if I took what I know from Fox or MSNBC. If you want to know what it was like to live in ancient Palestine, you can do so. If you want to know what life is like for mountain tribes in Afghanistan, a world of good, some great books, awaits you. If you want to know what it is like to live on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, your enlightenment is now literally one click away. “Want to start reading?” Amazon asks? I invariably say yes.
- We read to get out from under ourselves. When I am upset or depressed or bewildered, I now invariably pull Charles Dickens’ “Pickwick Papers” off the shelf — I own two complete sets of Dickens, including my new 30-volume Bibliophile hardbound edition, so beautiful in every way that all 30 volumes are on my big map table in my living room. I cannot always get into the world of a book when I am upset, but if I do — and that is more often than not — I temporarily forget my troubles and find myself smiling at the sheer exuberance and absurdity of early Dickens. When I am in Jane Austen’s Bath I am not in my own Trumpland. When I am in the “Iliad, I am decidedly not in the world of the Bachelor, American Idol, and the Kardashians. Thank God for great books. When I am at Walden Pond I am no longer on the windy plains of North Dakota. Samuel Johnson once said to his worshipful biographer James Boswell, “You appear to have only two subjects, yourself and me, and I am sick of both.” I get tired of myself, my petty concerns, my habits, my style, my voice, my outlook. And then I turn to “Moby Dick” and forget that dull, tedious, Lilliputian man who sits in his favorite reading chair with one of his favorite books in his dry hands. Or as Ishmael puts it, “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul,” I turn to great literature, to the humanities.
- We read to be civilized. I know it sounds horrible, but I pity the person who does not read, just as I pity the person who regards the Super Bowl as the entertainment highlight of the year, the person who thinks bowling is the highest expression of the human recreational spirit, or who thinks Don Rickles was the greatest comedian ever. I know different people have different tastes, and are entitled to them, too, but when I see someone reading Danielle Steele or James Patterson on an airplane, I just want to say why bother? If the most beautiful woman who ever walked the face of the earth — Bollywood’s Aishwarya Rai, for example — wanted to take a break from reading Mary Higgins Clark’s latest novel to hold my hand, I would turn away in sorrow and self-pity. Jefferson said we can only be a republic if all of us work hard, continuously, to be our best selves. This requires training. A lot of it comes from reading uplifting books.
- Finally — though there is much more to say — we read because we are trying to figure life out. I met a Catholic abbot and theologian a couple of years ago at a retreat, an amazing, elegant, thoughtful man in his 70s. When we went around to introduce ourselves, he told us of his decades of Catholic formation and then said, “You know, I have to say by this point I thought I would be farther along.” It was one of the finest things I ever heard said. I’ve been a nerdy humanities scholar for more than 40 years now. I have read more than most. Heck, I get to earn my living by way of reading books. No heavy lifting. I’m not just a reader but a hard, devoted, ambitious, penetrating reader. And yet when I think of the great questions of life — what is love, why do friends fall apart, what is beyond the edge of the universe, why do we die, what is grace, what is beauty, what is truth, why is there anger, what happens when we die, how shall we spend our lives? — I realize that I know nothing, really, in spite of my willingness to talk about just about anything. That’s one paradox of the life of the mind. I’ve read incessantly since I was 15, and I seem to know nothing.
It’s not that there is a book or a series of books that explain everything. Although, as we are all too well aware, fundamentalists of all stripes and sects claim they have the book that solves every problem. But the great books find ways to explore the core questions of life and tease out possibilities and moments of tremendous insight. Surely you have had that experience. You are sitting in your chair reading, and after half an hour or so you get into the Zone — that magical sensuous feeling that you are totally in sync with the words on the page, with the tone, argument, style, outlook of the author. You feel you could read forever, never flag, never eat, never get up to get a drink of water. And then you come upon a passage that somehow seems to probe right into the heart of life — a passage that helps to explain the great mystery. You are so “woke,” to use the term that is gaining force in our culture, so suddenly and deeply impressed, inspired, inhabited by the consciousness of the writer, that you have to get up, you have to rise up out of the chair, and you look around in a strange exhilarated stupor. It was that great. You want to call someone to talk about it, and, until you have learned that that never really works out, that call, you do, and the person at the other end of the line is sleeping and annoyed, or watching a “M*A*S*H” marathon and annoyed, or just bewildered by whatever it is that has consumed you.
We live for that moment in our reading. I live for that moment — which apparently will never come — when the person on the other end of the line says, “wait, let me put on the kettle for tea and I’ll get down the book. I was just reading it myself this last weekend.”
O give me that Other Human Being.