Why Read Good Books?

I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.  – Groucho Marx

Why read good books when you can listen to them, or when you can read reviews that give you their main talking points? Or—as most of us are doing—when you can skip them altogether in favor of other sources of entertainment, information, knowledge, and wisdom?

As I was thinking about the fact that fewer people are willing to devote time to serious reading, I recalled my own comparison of finding readers (or authors) to making friends. It then struck me that, in addition to all the usual reasons trotted out for reading good books, there’s one that doesn’t get as much attention: Reading a good book is an art, just as being friends is. Since we don’t usually think of  either one of these as an art, I thought I’d sketch a few aspects of the art of reading and the sort of virtues it develops. (My book examines the art of friendship.) I offer these reflections to encourage myself and any others who also find it hard to make time for serious reading.

Mastery of any art depends on the quality of our attention, but some arts prize attention above all, and reading is among these. The reading I have in mind here is restricted to good books. I exclude shorter pieces of writing, no matter how great, including short stories, essays, magazine articles, blog posts, and the like because I want to underscore the span of attention that reading a book-length work requires. In our frenetic, multitasking world, it’s easy to read attentively for a few minutes, but it’s increasingly hard for us to make the time and gather the concentration that good books demand.

While all books—even mysteries, romances, and other popular page-turners— require a greater span of attention, the true art is practiced with good books. This is because good books make special demands. These demands are often pleasurable, but not necessarily in the same way as the page-turning confections we so easily gobble up. The pleasure of good books is more like that of a bracing hike in rugged wilderness that affords spectacular views. Such books don’t pander or play to our basest instincts and desires. Instead they ask us to make an effort, to stretch ourselves to meet the author half-way, as good friends do. The effort may involve a willingness to reflect on our own experience as we read, to bring some preparatory learning to the table, or even just to make sure there is time each day when we are alert enough to concentrate on a book.

Like meditation, reading good books needs daily peace and quiet as well as concentration. The enemies of serious reading are drowsiness, distractions, internal chatter, and multi-tasking. (Most people are doing other things as they listen to books, which is why it doesn’t develop the same virtue of concentration that reading does.) When I’m going through a busy or stressful period, finding the motivation to sit down and read for even an hour can be as challenging as sitting for formal meditation. Both require quieting, calming, and focusing our monkey bodies and monkey minds. Thus reading is meditation inasmuch as it involves practicing the art of focused calm abiding. As most readers know, an hour spent in the company of a good book often leaves you feeling better and more relaxed, as meditation does.

Let me mention one other virtue of good reading. If we’re talking fancy, we can call it the virtue of hermeneutical charity. (Hermeneutics is the art of interpretation. I discuss it here.) This is that basic friendliness and good will that assumes the best of our friends and authors; that is openminded and generously tries to see things from their perspective; and that withholds judgment in the meantime. Friends and books may challenge us to suspend for a while our own instincts, prejudices and opinions, in order to gain a different and more expansive view of things. Thus reading good books gives us practice in getting over ourselves—exercising our imagination and generosity on behalf of entertaining another vision of things.

For me, at least, recalling these virtues encourages me to give more time to good books. And I need encouragement. For even though I should know better, there’s always been a (Protestant) part of me that thinks I’m not being productive when I’m reading a book. And I often feel this way even though I’ve spent much of my adult life earning my living by reading and teaching great books. Yet somehow running a chainsaw seems more productive.

Nor is it just ourselves we have to persuade to make time for the art of reading. Have you noticed that people don’t think you’re busy when you’re reading? Imagine telling a friend that you can’t go out because you’re busy . . . reading. (They’d think you had a better excuse if you said you were watching a movie!) Here is yet another parallel with meditation. For perhaps the only less persuasive, and more hurtful, thing you could say to your friend would be that you can’t go out because you’re planning to spend the evening by yourself, sitting cross-legged on the floor, staring at the wall, thinking about nothing (if you can).

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