In his one and only lecture given on the subject of poetry, classics scholar and poet A. E. Housman, author of “The Shropshire Lad,” stated elegantly “Good literature continually read for pleasure must…do some good to the reader: must quicken his perception though dull, and sharpen his discrimination though blunt, and mellow the rawness of his personal opinions.”1
After a lifetime of sharpening her discriminatory gifts, so to speak, Lynne Sharon Schwartz (born March 19, 1939) revisits her decisions to spend so much time, energy, and passion on this dubious hobby (obsession?) of reading.
Lying in the shadow of books, I brood on my reading habit. What is it all about? What am I doing it for? And the classic addict’s question, What is it doing for me? … I’m not sure my mind could be free without reading, or that the action books have on it is properly termed “interference.” I suspect the interaction of the mind and the book is something more complex. I can see it encompassing an intimate history and geography: the evolution of character, the shifting map of personal taste.
In Ruined by Reading, Schwartz fingers qualities well-known to avid readers, like getting so deep into books we forget embodied selves. Schwartz introduces the world to a perfect, sublime thing called “the fear of being interrupted”, for which I, and many others, love her deeply.2
It may have been from that moment that I contracted a phobia for which there is no name, the fear of being interrupted. Sometimes at the peak of intoxicating pleasures, I am visited by a panic: the phone or doorbell will ring, someone will need me or demand that I do something. Of course, I needn’t answer or oblige, but that is beside the point.3
Of course, Schwartz’s real question is not “Did I waste my life reading?” but “What should I have been doing instead?” A weighted, worthy question, indeed. How is a life to be spent? What makes a “worthy” life?
Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius suggested we lead a “universe-worthy” life full of kindness, compassion, and honesty. Novelist Marilynne Robinson made her own thoughts on the matter exceedingly clear when she entitled her memoir When I Was a Child I Read Books.
I’ve never felt the compulsion to question reading (who has time when there are books unread), but were I to, I might also dissect each decision—to read or not to read—and pad each with ample book references.
Only to discover the pleasure of reading anew.
“I’m old-fashioned and I think that reading books is the most glorious pastime that humankind has yet devised” wrote Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Symborska in Nonrequired Reading a smattering of book reviews on books no one will ever read.
When Schwartz gave her parents a copy of Kafka’s The Trial, their response is so weighty and real:
‘That book you recommended,’ my father began with his customary abruptness. ‘By that Kafka. The Trial.’ ‘Yes?’ I said eagerly. ‘Did you read it?’ ‘Well, that’s what I’m calling you about. Your mother and I both read it and we have very different opinions about what it means. I say it’s about the injustice of the legal system and the modern state… She says it’s just about life itself, how you’re always guilty about something or other and you feel you deserve to be punished simply for being alive.’ He paused. My heart leaped. This was exactly what I wanted. We should theorize this way every waking hour.
To have such a penetrative dialogue with one’s parents over a book. Or anyone. If that isn’t universe-worthy, I struggle to determine what is.4
I can vacillate lengthily, and foolishly, over whether to read at random (as I did on my bed in the fading light) or in some programmed way (as we all did in school). I like to cling to the principle that if randomness determines the universe it might as well determine my reading too; to impose order is to strain against the nature of things. Randomness continuing for long enough will yield its own pattern or allow a pattern to emerge organically, inscrutably, from within – or so I hope.
So, ultimately was Schwartz’s life ruined by reading? Could she have been doing something more noble? Does it matter?
Reading gives a context for experience, a myriad of contexts. Not only will we know any better what to do when the time comes, but we will not be taken unawares or in a void. When we are old and have everything stripped away, and grasp the vanity of having it and of grieving for its loss, yet remain bound in both vanity and grief, hugging the whole rotten package to our hearts in an antic, fierce embrace, we may think, King Lear, this has happened before, I am not in uncharted territory, now is my turn in the great procession.
Honor this wonderful book by gobbling up Alan Lightman’s In Praise of Wasting Time, Richard Feynman’s essays on the pleasures of scientific discovery and, just for fun, Doris Lessing’s On Cats or Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs, exceptional writers on an exceptional topics.