During a recent train journey from Sydney’s Town Hall to Kings Cross, I saw two people reading, and both were reading 1984. This was not a coincidence. A week after Trump’s inauguration the novel, published in 1949, was Amazon’s bestselling book; at the time of writing it ranks sixth. People are using Orwell’s cautionary dystopia to make sense of the present. Books often fill this role: a private position from which to contemplate otherwise baffling experiences, maps with which to navigate the overwhelming, both public and personal. CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking are often recommended to the grieving. Books prompting the reader to confront their own mortality have, in recent years, become increasingly popular (among them, Being Mortal by Atul Gawande and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi). Many readers share the desire for literature to be instructional or therapeutic.
If books serve this purpose, it is easier to argue for their continued relevance. However, reading books as tools or cures risks devaluing literary pleasure, taking enchantment and diminishing it with a utilitarian vocabulary. Certainly literature can bolster our emotional and intellectual equipment, but too much advice about how best to read describes literature as if it had a reducible, quantifiable outcome, as if a book were consumed by its reader and alchemically transmuted into intellect or aptitude.
Last month, Alain de Botton ominously pronounced on Twitter that ‘Some 130 million books have been published in history; a big reader will get through 6,000 in a lifetime. Choose carefully …’ A couple of weeks back, in the Harvard Business Review, Neil Pasricha (who holds the dubious honour of having delivered a TED Talk ‘ranked one of the most inspiring of all time’) wrote a list of ‘8 Ways to Read (a Lot) More Books this Year’, having improved his own reading rate from around 5 books per year to fifty, which has caused him to ‘feel more interesting’, ‘feel like a better father’, and write more (and actually contains some decent advice, too).
These are relatively sound, harmless, and digestible chunks of wisdom. But the impulse to speak of reading as a numbers game is suggestive. What happens, in de Botton’s picture, if you don’t choose carefully? What does choosing carefully look like? Why is so much thinking and writing dedicated to answering the question: ‘How should I read?’
It seems, for many of us, reading is a problem in a way that, say, cinema, music and television are not. It requires attention and time; scarce resources in an age of information consumption characterised by low-stakes sampling. The confusion around what good reading looks like may also have something to do with the solitude of the practice, and its dependence on the inscrutable realm of one person’s imagination. The silent reader is an enigma. In the same way you might be anxious about what someone really thinks of you, you cannot determine the nature of drama or frustration or gratification that this person is experiencing. Even if you’ve read the book, what precisely you have shared with your fellow reader remains elusive. It it is impossible to clearly articulate all of what we gain from literature.
We might like a book for its beauty or morality, or because it transforms our sense of self, or invites us to imagine an other we had not previously considered. But the experience is never reducible to one, or even a handful, of these effects. ‘If you press me to tell you why I loved him,’ Montaigne wrote about his famously intense friendship with La Boétie, ‘I feel that this cannot be expressed except by answering: Because it was he, because it was I.’ The love of a book is similarly indescribable. This is why social media fetishises books as objects. It is easier to express (and inhabit) a reading aesthetic, than it is to describe reading.
Reading is multifarious – if we were to develop a list of features common to every literary experience it would be very short – yet people want to make rules about books. We are driven to evaluate them, and through them ourselves. Writing a literature PhD, I plainly think books deserve attention. But I have seen and experienced the discomfort associated with failing to understand or finish a text, and the impulse to measure and rank and explain. Teaching literature often means diagnosing and circumnavigating these insecurities. De Botton’s edict to ‘choose carefully’ pokes at the fear of being a person who has not read enough or failed to read what they should have.
Advocates of reading (myself included) often feel compelled to evangelise that books will improve your character, change your life, make you a better person. That we turn to books in times of great emotional need, during political crises, and to find a way through mourning speaks to their power. But, as with friendships, they do not need to be life-changing to be valuable. Nor does a book need to equip us for the future. We are not compelled to ask whether live music or conversation will improve us. There is obvious value in the thing itself.
Of course there are better and worse books, and the claim that life is enhanced by reading widely is, in the modern liberal democratic tradition, uncontroversial. This is supported by the fact that, if Ricky Gervais is to be believed, he has only ever read one: Catcher in the Rye. Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump also doesn’t read books. It is likely not a fluke that both these men assumed that being able to do one thing extremely well (playing an unfunny and insufferable middle-manager; playing a cartoon rich person) qualified them for other pursuits (being an unfunny and insufferable atheist and awards show host; being President). Literature does contribute to our sense of where we might stop being useful.
Of course we should all read more. If it’s not obvious to you that books can be nourishing and enlightening, I suggest that you vacuum them up until the revelation hits. There’s no shortage of outlets promoting the virtues of reading, but if you’re spending time with articles proffering guidance on how best to read, it’s unlikely that your failure to optimise your bookcase placement or Kindle font is the reason you’re not hitting your target.
Barring misfortune and excessive sloth, I will soon complete my PhD. However, as you may have realised, this has not granted me any grand insight into how best to read. All I can do here is chase down my instinct that if we’re picking up books out of fear we are poorer for it. I am anxious, I suppose, about reducing literature to a self-improvement machine.
Sure, read 1984 to come to terms with the destabilising politics of deceit. Commit to finishing Ulysses or Gravity’s Rainbow in a month, or reread the entire Animorphs series including its numerous spin-offs. Read only books by Eastern European women for a year. Confine yourself to the self-published. Read nothing but Proust for a decade. Read twenty books at once. Skip every second page. Reading is not transactional. Books should not be commodities. Life is too short. And unless you are my student, I cannot make you read what I want you to read. Even then.
Image: Still from 1984.