Losing the Ability to “Lose Oneself”
William Giraldi has written a fascinating piece for VQR about loving literature. Much of the article is directed toward the way that academics, specifically, approach fictional works. But this thought was especially fascinating, and useful for all readers:
[A]cademics … treat literature neither as a thing nor a person but rather as a frog splayed and pinned to a table. They then dispose of the frog’s innards and insert a tract for their own ideological purposes, a tract that has little or nothing to do with how that poor frog croaked its song in life.
Literature will not be harnessed for any cause, no matter how an academic distorts it, and literature that harnesses itself in the service of a cause is not literature at all but agitprop. If you agree that literature is, in Kenneth Burke’s words, “equipment for living,” a necessary asking of the right questions, and if you don’t question your own love of living, your own love of children and nature, of justice and language and storytelling, then why would you question your love of the best expression and assertion of that love?
The problem we face—or, at least, that I seem to face as a reader—is that true “love” (even love of literature) is a selfless act. It involves forgetting oneself in one’s regard and care for the “other,” whether the other be spouse, sibling, friend, etc. Love requires looking beyond our own feelings and desires, to the object loved. And this is where, I fear, my love of literature—and even of reading in general—has suffered greatly.
When was the last time you sat down to read, and completely lost yourself in the story? When was the last time reading made you lose track of time, place, to-do lists, and schedules—when you were so enamored with a book, you set everything else aside? If I’m going to be honest, it’s probably been years—with the exception, perhaps, of East of Eden by John Steinbeck and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. And, in both cases, I was reading the books on the airplane: in an environment that significantly decreased distractions.
Of course, immersing ourselves in literature gets harder as we get older: the sheer busyness and responsibilities of adulthood cannot be discounted. Many adults feel too much responsibility, toward family and/or work, to set everything aside and read with deep concentration. But I would also argue that we condition ourselves—through college, careers, and the entertainment we enjoy—to perceive reading in the wrong way: to lose the “love” that enables reading to be a truly transporting and delightful experience.
Reading is something that many of us did, when young, for the sheer joy of it. Of course, school reading was often distasteful. But in our free time, we could enjoy a book without a care. At the college (or even high school) level, however, our style of reading transitions—from the pleasurable to the academic, from leisurely enjoyment to speedy skimming or critical dissecting, from an enjoyment of the book itself to reading as means to an end (the end, in this case, being a good grade). Few ever transition back to the old style of reading.
Additionally, as we grow older, all of our leisurely pursuits continue to accumulate extraneous baggage. A lot of this is due to the pressures and publicity of social media: meals must be Instagrammed, hikes turned into Twitter statuses, workout accomplishments posted on Facebook. Our lives become increasingly public—and thus, our pastimes turn into means to the ever-greater end of personal acclamation.
We continue to read because it’s “good for us.” Because it makes us smarter, more informed people. We read because we’re supposed to, or because a friend recommended it. Sometimes we even read out of nostalgia, a yearning to get back to that time of complete lostness—we read because we long to love literature again. But I would argue that we will not truly love reading again until we reconsider what that love truly requires: a forsaking of self to delight in the object loved. This may mean turning off one’s phone, setting aside the calendar, pushing past stressful life situations, and opening the book with a commitment to read slowly and thoughtfully. It may mean avoiding any sort of public mention of one’s reading, to avoid any pressures or self-consciousness this may add to the process.
It is true that books must also be deserving of love—and that sometimes, our books are just disappointing. But surely, too, there is merit to be found in many works, and if anything, a more thoughtful read will help us uncover the goods which may be hiding beneath the surface. Love is not dissecting, cynical, looking for faults. Love seeks to see the good and virtuous in the object loved (even as it acknowledges frankly the faults therein). Thus, a return to loving books would require that, instead of opening our novels or biographies with a cynical or contemptuous mindset, we read with a spirit of teachability and humility.
All of this, of course, is important for more reasons than just the forgetting of oneself and one’s cares. It is also important because we have a tendency to quantify our lives—to organize our readings into lists and agendas, to be anxious readers, constantly absorbed with getting to the “next thing.” This is the antithesis of what reading really ought to be. Reading should be a delving deep, a consideration and an education, which does not leave us the same. This requires time, thought, and the right sort of forgetfulness: the sort that leaves us and our agendas on the outside, and leaves only the story, with its lessons and loveliness, to be appreciated and savored.