How ought we to read? In the New York Review of Books, Tim Parks considers a Vladimir Nabokov quote which promotes the intense reading of a few over the broad perusal of hundreds—and he wonders, is Nabokov right?
“When we read a book for the first time,” Nabokov complains, “the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation.” Only on a third or fourth reading, he claims, do we start behaving toward a book as we would toward a painting, holding it all in the mind at once.
… The ideal here, it seems, is total knowledge of the book, total and simultaneous awareness of all its contents, total recall. Knowledge, wisdom even, lies in depth, not extension. … Since a reader could only achieve such mastery with an extremely limited number of books, it will be essential to establish that very few works are worth this kind of attention. We are pushed, that is, toward an elitist vision of literature in which aesthetic appreciation requires exhaustive knowledge only of the best.
… So, is this an ideal attitude to literature? Is Nabokov right that there is only rereading? Does the whole posture, both Nabokov’s and that of critical orthodoxy, bear any relation to the reality of our reading habits, particularly in a contemporary environment that offers us more and more books and less and less time to read them?
Meanwhile, Ken Kalfus writes a relatable—and even amusing, though in an almost tragic way—piece in the New Yorker about the way we shop for books now:
Bookstores have become places of regret and shame. We once enjoyed shopping in them or simply looking in their windows, back in the days when they were ordinary retail establishments. They were like stores that sold shoes or hats, but with more appealing merchandise. Now they’ve taken on moral significance. Buying a book and choosing the place to do so involve delicate and complicated considerations. You may fail to do the right thing.
… My remorse enfeebles me. I recognize that I’m no longer thinking about the essence of the reading experience or the book I want to buy, which in the depths of my moral rumination has been turned into simply another form of consumption, and not even that, but rather the aspiration to consume.
For the bibliophile, these dilemmas are deeply understandable. We’ve all confronted that large and looming bookshelf, considering furtively—or even fearfully—what we should buy… or whether we should buy anything at all, since we’ve probably got three or even 15 books on our shelf that are as yet unread. We think of the treasure troves left to be discovered, the talented authors who we could support through our sales, the tiny indie bookstore feebly making it by, day by day. And all of a sudden, choosing a book becomes a monumental, even moral, task.
Are other pastimes saddled with this moral weight? Few of us spend such time and mental energy perusing Netflix or movie theatre listings. True, we may be overwhelmed by choices; but in the end, we’re merely seeking some evening entertainment. And unless one is a true film enthusiast, these cinematic choices don’t leave us in any sort of moral quandary or panic.
So why is reading different? Perhaps because, for many of us, it’s more than entertainment: it’s part of a larger search for truth, goodness, and beauty. It’s a way we delve deeper into our souls, and the souls of others. It often leaves us shaken and transformed. As Nabokov points out, the longer we spend immersed in a particular work, the more we begin to know and love it—and the more it begins to change us. Reading leaves a more indelible mark on the human mind than most other forms of entertainment. Thus, choosing a book is often like choosing a particular course for one’s future: mapping out the free hours of the coming days, yes, but even more, mapping out a new mental and spiritual journey for the self to embark upon.
Through our reading, we come to know and love writers. We often find ourselves compelled to keep buying and reading their material, seeking to know them better—and seeking to support their work.
Through our reading, we come to know and love bookstores. They leave us with deep sensory impressions, fond memories of serendipitous discovery, a lingering thirst for joys yet undiscovered. We frequent our favorites with religious devotion—memorizing the layout of their shelves, seeking their most comfortable chairs.
For the bibliophile, reading is a monumental part of living. And thus, the choosing of every book must be considered deliberately and thoughtfully. Which brings us back to the two questions that Parks and Kolfus consider: first, should we seek quality or quantity in our reading? And second, what moral claims should lay heaviest on our hearts in the choosing of a book?
Back in 2013, I wrote about George Vanderbilt’s enormous library and voracious reading habits: he reportedly read 3,159 books in his lifetime (approximately 80 books a year). I used to think that such a feat would be accomplishable for me—3,000 didn’t even sound like that many. But the older I get, the busier life becomes… and getting through 40 or 50 books in a year seems like a monumental accomplishment. I’ve realized that Vanderbilt’s record will never be mine—and that it doesn’t have to be. Instead, it’s become clear that I ought to savor each book: re-reading my favorites, while still seeking those essential reads that stretch brain and attention span in healthy ways. Speed reading is useful for the accumulation of necessary knowledge, while slow reading is essential for the appreciation of written beauty. Perhaps our best reading choices lie at the junction of quality and quantity: we can quickly peruse tedious or secondary works, then slowly absorb the masterpieces worth relishing.
And what of the purchasing of books? William Giraldi touched on this struggle in his excellent piece on personal libraries earlier this year. “Agonizingly aware of the human lifespan,” he wrote, “The collector’s intention is not to read them all, but, as E.M. Forster shares in his essay ‘My Library,’ simply to sit with them, ‘aware that they, with their accumulated wisdom and charm, are waiting to be used’—although, as Forster knows, books don’t have to be used in order to be useful.”
To the non-bookworm, such sentiments probably sound ridiculous and expensive. But to the bibliophile, such a statement bears witness to the dilemma we all face, the tightrope we walk on every trip to the bookstore or the bookshelf: what to read, re-read, and why, are the questions that must be weighed in the balance. Thankfully, a good book is worth all the work.