The Art of Reading

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book cover artIf you are a fan of books about books and reading then you need to find a way to fit Damon Young’s slim volume The Art of Reading onto to your reading pile. Books in this genre tend to be chatty and cozy. Sure sometimes there are the doom and gloom evils of e-books and no one reads anymore rants, but most of the time I expect a warm and fuzzy kindred spirit. I was a bit put off by Young at first. He is a philosopher and takes a philosophical approach to his book – Nietzsche, Sartre, Plato, Aristotle – where’s the cozy? But I kept reading and I am glad I did!
 
Don’t let the philosophical perspective scare you away. He reads e-books and print books and he likes Batman comics as well as Star Trek novels. He doesn’t write in jargon or obscure sentences and concepts. On the contrary, he has a clear, low-key style and a light touch. In fact, I ended up liking his writing so much I have requested another of his books from the library. He also left me wanting to make a deep dive into philosophy, or rather a few particular philosophers, and he has cruelly added quite a number of books to my TBR list.
 
Young believes the reader’s freedoms have been forgotten, their potencies denied or repressed. We and our books need to be liberated and to this end he proposes six virtues. Virtues makes it sound moralistic in a way that it is not (though in some ways it is our duty to be good readers), the virtues are more qualities of a good reader, the art of reading.

Each chapter focuses on one of the virtues: curiosity, patience, pride (“Not arrogance or hubris, but a carful, critical intellect, unhampered by deferential lowliness.”), courage (“deliberately chase texts that challenge easy resolutions”), temperance, and justice (“a just reader distinguished between emotion and estimation; pauses between judgment and proclamation…gives dues, not always by interpreting perfectly, but by admitting that dues are deserved and lacking.”). He sometimes takes a long meander to get to the point, but I really enjoyed the ruminative qualities. This is not a good book to sit down with if you are feeling rushed or distracted. Take an hour or so of slow reading for a chapter and then put the book down and come back later or the next day for another chapter.

I found the temperance chapter with a subtitle “Appetite for Distraction,” to be the most brain sparking. Young defines intemperance as

a lack of mental order. This adds an aesthetic dimension to the ethical criticism: not merely an appetite for nasty things, but a misshapen psyche.

He uses himself and a Star Trek novel binge as an example. He zoomed through a series story about Captain Will Riker, one e-book after another. Not five minutes after finishing one he would have the next one downloaded. He couldn’t get enough. It’s not that the story was amazing or the writing was all that great — he provides an analysis of what is good and not good about Star Trek in general and the novels he binged on in particular. But he read them to the exclusion of everything else. He couldn’t stop. They were like that bag of potato chips that start off tasting oh so good, a little salty and greasy and crunchy, and you are only going to eat a few, and before you know it you have eaten the entire bag and you feel a little sick.

We’ve all done this with books and probably potato chips too. There is nothing wrong with reading Star Trek novels or romance or thrillers or even, as Young once binged on, Dostoevsky. It’s not the novel. The problem is the indulgence that “warps” the senses. It’s that we read mindlessly and without control.

What unites these readers is a failure of desire: craving misguidedly or without restraint. The consequence is not, as in Aristotle’s conception, obesity, weakness, unpopularity or poverty; not loss of health or station. What suffers with intemperance is consciousness…pages are used to avoid what is pressing or precious; to feed delusion instead of starving it.

On the other end of the continuum is a sort of literary anorexia:

Anorexia can actually arise at moments or sharpest concentration, when perception is acute and intellect keen. It is the feeling that, whatever we are reading, it can now offer nothing more.

It’s that moment when you look at your pile of books and don’t want to read any of them. The reading slump, when nothing appeals and sometimes you don’t even want to read. It can last for a few days or a few weeks and when it’s really bad, a few months. Horrors!

Young doesn’t say it, but I wonder if the binging doesn’t in some way lead to the anorexia, putting us as readers on a sort of binge-purge cycle.

By talking about the two extremes, Young suggests that temperance might save us from mindless binging and the lack of desire to read anything at all. This does not mean we cannot indulge in a Star Trek novel. Some days, Young says, he needs a little Captain Riker to balance out his “harassed pessimism.” What it does mean is that we choose our reading consciously, that it doesn’t become a crutch or distraction to keep us from thinking or feeling. We must be aware and careful to moderate our habit, to not be unrestrained in either consumption or deep concentration.

Whether or not you agree with Young regarding his thoughts on temperance, you will likely be able to agree with him when he says,

Despite civilisation’s glut of signs, the virtues of reading are rarely celebrated. Reading well is treated as a rudimentary skill, not a lifelong ambition; not a creative talent to tenaciously enrich and enhance.

For Young, reading is not a hobby or a habit, it is something worthy of pursuit, something worth working at, worth learning to be better at. It is a skill, a talent, and ultimately, an art.

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