Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Ethical Reading

"We have stopped reading, we have not the time. Our mind is solicited simultaneously from too many sides: it has to be spoken to quickly as it passes by. But there are things that cannot be said or understood in such haste, and these are the most important things for man. This accelerated movement, which makes coherent thought impossible, may alone be sufficient to weaken, and in the long run utterly to destroy, human reason."

Félicité Robert de Lamennais in his Mélanges religieux et philosophiques. In 1819. Via this post at languagehat.

I know nothing of this French cleric beyond what is in the bio Languagehat linked to, but I love him. He lived in a time like mine, where things had been accelerating recently, so that one could no longer find the time to read the way one ought.

Here is how I read a book these days. I get it in my head that I should assign some book that I myself have not read yet. I think about the book in the abstract for a while, riding my bike or spacing out while watching the baby, not really knowing what is in it. Two weeks before the book order is due, I get a copy of the book to see if it is actually the book I was daydreaming about. I read the first chapter, the last chapter, and enough of the middle to at least know that it is a book worth assigning. In drawing up the syllabus, I assign parts that I haven't read yet. Those parts will be read one hour before class. If parts of the book go unassigned, they go unread.

There are variations on this routine. There is the version where I am reading for a book review. There is the version where I am reading to look for arguments or information useful for a paper I am writing.

I don’t want to read this way.

I want to read without an ulterior motive. I want to read whole books, from beginning to end. I want to read one book at a time. I don’t want months or years to pass between sittings with a book. I want to read books the way I read when I was fourteen.

This isn’t really a want, I think, but a duty. I don’t know the principle behind this duty. I don’t know who the duty is owed to: myself? The author? Pure reason?

Time isn’t the only problem. Discipline is another. I loose interest in too many books. Serious books become books for work. Light books get dull.

I’ve tried tricks. I’ve forced myself to read without pen in hand. I’ve purchased books that look like they will be too compelling to drop. Molly suggested that if I wanted to read like I was fourteen, I should read the same books I read then. Well, I’ve tried reading the same types of books, to no avail. Perhaps I should actually read the same books. But can I really read Ringworld again now that I know the author is a crony of Newt Gingrich?

This semester hasn’t been so bad. I read all of Huxley’s Island and The Aesthetics of Natural Environments (Carlson and Berleant, eds, review forthcoming in Environmental Ethics). By the end of the semester I will have reread Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. They were all read for reviews or classes, though.

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