Friday, July 11, 2008

In Praise of Bookishness

When I have a little money I buy books, and if any is left over I buy food and clothing.” —Desiderius Erasmus

We are constantly reminded that Americans don’t read books, that vaunted best-seller, the Bible, notwithstanding. From childhood on we are repeatedly told about the virtues of reading, with little explanation as to how or why it’s so. Thankfully, opinion mattered little to the forming of my tastes, and I read for pleasure alone. Yet, the more I read the more I hear the great voices of the past cry out from their pages to put them down. Is reading all that fine a thing after all?

Socrates, in Plato’s Phaedrus, was perhaps among the first, certainly the most prestigious, to doubt the virtues of reading and writing. To him they were a corruption of the arts of memory. Once something is written the need to develop our memories quickly declines, he argued. We can forgive him his shortsightedness, he was a thinker after all, not a prophet, and could never have predicted the vast storehouses of knowledge humankind would collect. If anything we need a good memory now more than ever, if only to remember what we have read and where we read it.

Michel de Montaigne admitted to being a lazy reader who, was “not prepared to bash” his “brains for anything, not even for learning.” We can only assume the man with a library of over a thousand volumes was talking tongue in cheek. Friedrich Nietzsche howled from his mountaintop that to read a book in the light of dawn was a “vicious” thing. However, I expect for a man with such poor sight any prolonged reading becomes vicious, especially in the bright glare of morning.

Experience is to be preferred to a life among the dust and cobwebs and the gloom of the aisles, they tell us, as though to open a book is to turn our faces from the light. (I myself find it difficult to read in the dark.) Those who spend too much time in reflection on their thoughts, or those of others, are perceived to be letting the “real” world pass them by, that somehow they are missing out. I argue the reverse; the “real” world is about us at every moment, and a good portion of our lives are hardly ours to enjoy if we must work to live (and aren’t fortunate enough to truly enjoy our jobs). Further, not all things are open to experience in the flesh. How are we to understand history but from the pages of a book? Even to visit a ruin is an empty act without a knowledge of its context.

I always smile when I read Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s Discourses—not that I read them often—and his rant against the evils of printing. Here’s a man who was one of the finest stylists and most universally read authors of his age. Did he not see the irony, or was he as oblivious to it as to the cries of the children he left on the steps of the foundling hospital? Through his books much of the bloodshed of the French Revolution could be laid at his feet. Doubtless, that irony too would have escaped him. Despite his sentimental longing for the good life without shoes, that “dreadful art”—for good or ill—brought down despots and quenched the fires of hell.

The image of the harmless bookworm is due to the ease and comfort of a free society that has made profit the sole good. It’s no exaggeration that reading was a dangerous, subversive activity in the past. Even in the great centers of learning, scholars and philosophers were always aware of just how far they could peer into the heart of things. We take it for granted that even the most unpopular concepts are shared openly. At the height of the Reformation in England, however, the hottest piece of contraband wasn’t French wine or dirty pictures, but the Bible in English—a far more hazardous weapon to church and state than all the gunpowder of foiled Guy Fawkes. And I weep to think there was an age when a diminutive philosopher on his deathbed could launch an armada of priests in the canals of Amsterdam. Was there truly a time when ideas were so important? Perhaps, like Rousseau, I cry for the moon.

The best periods of my life have been defined by books. I never recollect my past without some reference to what I was reading at the time. Meanwhile my bookcases stand as bulwarks against despair, their sheer weight anchoring me to sanity. And out in the world I’m rarely without a few close at hand. In a long and proud tradition following in the stacks of Edward Gibbon and Montaigne, I invented my own traveling library for the purpose, something I call a capsa, after the leather buckets used in antiquity to carry scrolls. It is little more than a soft cooler, and I have several of different sizes to accommodate even the largest octavo. Several standard paperbacks can fit very neatly, and the outer pockets are perfect for storing highlighters, pencils, pens, and all the accessories of annotation.

You may fairly accuse me of melodrama, but the lame aren’t asked to put down their crutches, nor the blind their canes. Please understand my condition, and pity me if you must, but I have reading to do.

Published in The Humanist July/August 2008.