“Reading is not an amusement filling the languid pauses between the hours of action; it is the one pursuit engrossing all the hours and the whole mind.”
I never went to graduate school, and yet it happens that I am badly afflicted with grad student syndrome – the compulsion to read more before putting anything of my own down on paper. Perhaps the best literary exemplar of this tendency is the figure of Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, whose Key to All Mythologies remained until his death in the note-taking phase, despite its having been his entire life’s work. I have read a reasonable amount in my life, but there is something about the authorial voice which dupes me like the most naïve of tyros every time. I always believe that the author is in full command of everything at once, despite the fact that I know full well from experience that all long form written work is assembled piecemeal – a process which the stately linear progression of a finished book does much to disguise.
Since the publication of Middlemarch, debate has raged about whether the Casaubon of the book was modeled on Mark Pattison, the Rector of Lincoln College, whose chief production was his biography Isaac Casaubon. Pattison’s biography of Casaubon paints the picture of a morose and tortured scholar who wanted nothing more than to be left alone with his books:
But over and above Casaubon’s constitutional fretfulness, we must make allowance for the irritability engendered by a life of hard reading against time. Casaubon thought every moment lost in which he was not acquiring knowledge. He resented intrusion as a cruel injury. To take up his time was to rob him of his only property. Casaubon’s imagination was impressed in a painful degree with the truth of the dictum ‘ars longa, vita brevis.’ [Isaac Casaubon, pp.28-29]
Casaubon was in many ways the perfect subject for Pattison, given his own approach to reading and study. Pattison’s Memoirs abound in the type of reflections observed in Casaubon’s diary about the need for systematic reading, and the race against death to master it all. One anecdote about Pattison reveals that he scared a young scholar away from a chosen project by revealing his own method of work:
He suggested that I should edit Selden’s Table Talk. The preparation was to be, first to get the contents practically by heart, then to read the whole printed literature of Selden’s day, and of the generation before him. In twenty years he promised me that I should be prepared for the work. He put the thing before me in so unattractive a way that I never did it or anything else worth doing. I consider the ruin of my misspent life very largely due to that conversation. [Tollemarche, Recollections of Pattison]
Surely, dear readers, any of you who write can feel a certain inner Pattisonian voice making the same claim against your starting to write today: first you must read more! I have countless little essays and other written projects which I would love to pen, but alas, that hateful little voice springs forth and says, “Stay! You have not read enough!”
This same impulse seems to underlie the projects of systematic reading which, if Johnson and Gibbon may be taken as exemplars of their age, were so fashionable in the 18th century. Each of them, at least once in their lives, drew up programs of systematic chronological reading of ancient authors. Gibbon had far more success with this (as his Decline and Fall shows), but although Johnson would joke about his aversion to reading books all the way through, it does appear to have caused him some distress that he was unable to follow through on his plans to read systematically for intellectual gain. Occasionally I will feel like drafting an essay on ancient philosophy, but then (and here comes Pattison), I feel that I must start by reading all of the fragments of Presocratic philosophers, then read all of Plato, then all of Aristotle, and proceed thus through Plotinus. This is of course such an appalling prospect that the project has never gotten off the ground.
This kind of rabid study-oriented bibliomania seems to have affected people in antiquity, too. Who can forget how Pliny the Elder felt compelled to read against the clock like Casaubon:
Once he returned home, he gave the rest of his time up to study. Often, after eating (which, in the ancient way, was always light and sparing) he would lie in the summer sun if he had the leisure, and read a book which he annotated and excerpted from. He never read anything without at least making some notes: he was in the habit of saying that no book was so bad that it was not useful in at least some way. After the sun, he would wash in cold water, then eat and sleep a little bit; soon, as if it were a new day already, he would study again until dinnertime. While eating dinner, he would read and take notes in a cursory fashion. I remember that he was once reading out loud, and was asked by one of his friends to repeat what he had just recited; to this man, my uncle said, ‘Surely, you understood the meaning?’ When the friend said that he had, my uncle responded, ‘Why then did you ask me to repeat it? I have lost the time for reading ten more verses because of your interruption.’ Such was his parsimony of his time. [Pliny the Younger, Letters 3.5]
When I was younger, reading was just a simple pleasure. I remember devouring the Goosebumps books in 2nd grade with such ungentlemanly haste that the excitement of a Saturday morning purchase at the bookstore quickly turned into a bored perception of the emptiness of life by Saturday night. Back then, I appreciated each book as a clear end in itself – reading them gave me a kind of uncomplicated joy. When I was about 15, I began reading “serious” books: philosophy, science, and capital L Literature. In those early days, it was still an uncomplicated process, but something happened after I went to college. If nothing else, college teaches you how little you know. Every fresh accession of knowledge comes with the realization that there are vast frontiers of untrodden territory, each of which would take you a lifetime to master. It is in college, too, that you really begin to pay attention to bibliography, and learn that the process of reading is exponentially expansive. Every time I read a really good book, I find that it suggests at least five others to my mind, and though it is a good problem to have, books can be purchased far faster than they can be read.
But the most insidious part about college is the way in which reading gets reframed as a kind of professional and moral obligation. When I was twenty, a professor referenced John Updike, and when I was naïve enough to confess that I had not read any of his books, I was asked, “What do they even teach you in school now?” Twelve years later, I still haven’t read any Updike, but I do feel a sense of dread that I will find myself in a conversation which hinges upon some piece of important or ‘canonical’ reading, and be brought up short as a fraud or an intellectual poser. This has given to my reading a sense of frenzied, greedy acquisitiveness. To be sure, I still love the act of reading, and if I had my way, I would devote a solid ten hours a day to it. But it is no longer a simple, entirely unadulterated pleasure. When I read, I read with a kind of vain and pretentious instrumentality in the back of my mind. The literary canon, as a concept, can be weaponized as an instrument of exclusion, but in an even more trivial way, it ruins reading by turning it into another one of our many dreary extra-professional chores, like exercise. Sure, I enjoy activity, but I only exercise every day because I know that I’m supposed to.
Over the past few years, I have begun to keep track of what I have read through the course of each year by placing every finished book onto a separate “completed” bookshelf. Some years are better than others, but I have been averaging about 100 books a year. Compared to the prodigious rate at which some people read, this may not be impressive; compared to my aspirations for reading when I buy five books on Friday night and dream that I could finish them all by Sunday, it falls far short. And yet, even at the rate of 100 a year, I will look at the shelf and realize that I don’t even remember reading some of the books on there.
Maybe this is sheer careless reading or inattentiveness, but maybe it is true of life more generally. Some reading has stayed with me through years, but I have forgotten the great bulk of everything I have ever read. It is a sad reflection, made sadder when I realize that the same is true of my life more generally. Most of my experiences and feelings have also slipped away from my memory, but at least I can go back and re-read a book – those parts of my life are lost forever.
Reading is a way of accessing a kind of permanent collective memory available to everyone. Ancient authors were conscious of achieving a kind of immortality through their written works, which would be transmitted through ages long after physical monuments had decayed. Reading can help us to cope with and even defy mortality by expanding our temporal horizons. While it has been complicated by a kind of deontological creep which ruins everything you enjoyed in childhood, reading remains my favorite activity, and one which I wish that I could spend my whole life on. And yet, if I knew that I would die tomorrow, I would not spend a second of today reading. Most likely, I would go on a frenzied quest for various sorts of sensual pleasure, which I suspect would be less enjoyable with the prospect of death looming so near. There is a curious paradox in wanting to spend one’s life on an activity which would suddenly seem so pointless at the very end of that life, when carpe librum becomes carpe diem with all of its pressing force. Such sad reflections can only drive me to one place: back to my books.