A Life of Reading

It should not excite too much controversy to claim that the culture of academia is almost irredeemably dysfunctional. One may examine concrete examples of this by witnessing the UC system’s recent villainously asymmetric response to a graduate labor strike, by considering the likely collapse of what is clearly a pyramid scheme driven by the managerial class, and by looking at the history of systemic exclusion and reification of class distinctions which may, after all, have been a part of the goal of the university system to begin with.

But in addition to academia’s institutional problems, a casual scroll through Twitter will suggest that many scholars both inside and outside the academy struggle with establishing a work-life balance when we are cultured to believe that, in scholarship, work and life are fundamentally the same. When I was a sophomore in college, I was speaking with a professor and expressed my own disinclination to go to the beach over spring break. He was quick to encourage this nascent sense of vocational devotion, and told me that if anyone ever told me to “get a life,” I should respond to them, “This is my life.”

And so it is. While I am not a professional scholar or a member of the academy, I nevertheless internalized the lesson that any really serious person will devote every second of their free time to study. This idea has an old precedent. Consider what the younger Pliny relates about his uncle’s study habits:

Before daybreak, he would go to see the emperor Vespasian, who also liked to work at night, and then he would set about his assigned duty. 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. In summer, he would leave the dinner table when it was still light out; in winter, within the first hour of night and as though he were compelled by some law.

He did all this amidst many labors, and the bustle of the city. In his retirement, the only time which he took away from his studies was in the bath-house (and when I say this, I mean the bath itself; when he was being oiled down or dried off, he would listen to or dictate something). When on the road, as though devoid of any other concerns, he had time for this alone: a secretary would be by his side with a book and some note-tablets, and this secretary would wear gloves in winter so that not even foul weather could snatch away any of his time for his studies. For this same reason, he was always carried in a chair when he was in Rome. I remember that one time, he asked me why I was walking. ‘You could have,’ he said, ‘avoided wasting these hours,’ for he thought that all time was wasted which was not spent on study. [Pliny, Letters 3.5]

Pliny’s attitude reflects the understanding of scholarship as intensely studious bibliomania, a trend which likely began in the first golden age of libraries during the Hellenistic age. The most widely encyclopedic author writing before that time, Herodotus, was not really much of a bookworm. But, as the oral culture of the centuries from Homer to Socrates gradually became an increasingly written culture, a new understanding of intelligence arose. Odysseus and the sophists shared in common a kind of quick-witted intelligence, which allowed them to respond nimbly to novel situations (or arguments) by recourse to clever stratagems and verbal tricks. But figures like Callimachus and Lycophron represent a new kind of encyclopedic intelligence which we would recognize in the stooped figure of the scholar today.

Indeed, it seems that from the 3rd century on, knowledge was something which people had to read themselves into. Even the decline of pagan literature was caused by a very definite shift toward religions of the book, for which textual scholarship and exegesis became essential skills not just for learning, but for salvation. And though individual authors might decry the tendency to spend too much time with texts, the model so clearly laid out by Pliny had been firmly set.

While it may have waxed and waned over the centuries, by the end of the Renaissance, the trend toward encyclopedism derived from heroic reading had certainly gained enough steam to propel it on through the social, political, and revolutions of the early modern world. Isaac Casaubon, whose bladder was monstrously distended from holding his urine to read just one more book without interruption, is an example of this voracious type of scholarship:

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]

By the 18th century, encyclopedic antiquarianism was in full swing. And yet, as a counter to the Casaubons of previous centuries, the 18th saw the rise of enormously erudite writers like Dr. Johnson and Edward Gibbon, who made a pointed display of lectorial sprezzatura. Johnson regularly taunted his friends that he never read a book through, and recommended that anyone who had begun reading a book in the middle with interest should continue on reading without returning to the beginning. Despite his own wealth of erudition, he denied knowing anyone who had ever taken reading too seriously:

‘No, Sir; I do not believe he studied hard. I never knew a man who studied hard. I conclude, indeed, from the effects, that some men have studied hard, as Bentley and Clarke.’ [Boswell, Life of Johnson]

Gibbon emphasized the “free, desultory” character of his youthful reading, and notes that he did not go in for the scholar’s midnight lucubration:

My worthy tutor had the good sense and modesty to discern how far he could be useful: as soon as he felt that I advanced beyond his speed and measure, he wisely left me to my genius; and the hours of lesson were soon lost in the voluntary labour of the whole morning, and sometimes of the whole day. The desire of prolonging my time, gradually confirmed the salutary habit of early rising, to which I have always adhered, with some regard to seasons and situations; but it is happy for my eyes and my health, that my temperate ardour has never been seduced to trespass on the hours of the night. [Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life]

Of course, just as Pliny’s systematic habits of study involved a certain amount of ostentatious display, so too one is forced to suspect that figures like Johnson and Gibbon read quite a bit more than these quotes would suggest. It seems an affectation of a kind of gentlemanly amateurism in an age when only cursory application was all the rage.

Affectation or not, perhaps we should aim to adopt the model of Johnson and Gibbon. Pliny’s example may rouse in us a kind of admiration for his scholarly heroism, but it also seems both wildly unhealthy and, in a rapidly changing age, increasingly futile. Pliny had undoubtedly crammed his mind to the brim with a stock of erudition, much of which survives today in his Natural History. But what of the stock of learning which was lost? What of the scholars whose immense knowledge died with their bodies, written only in the remembering tablets of their mind? With the advent of digital textual databases, the kind of inhuman erudition attained by figures like Pliny seems (while still impressive) less of a service to humanity and more of a form of personal improvement.

I read every day because I want to, but also because I feel that I have to. There lingers somewhere deep in the very constitution of my conscience a sense that the time which is not spent reading and learning is, in some way, wasted. To be sure, I do plenty of other things; but like Casaubon, too much time away from my books will make me anxious that a certain opportunity for learning has been irretrievably lost. I know that I am not the only one who feels this way, so perhaps it is time to discard Pliny as our heroic model, and take another look at life.

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Carl Spitzweg, The Bookworm

4 thoughts on “A Life of Reading

    1. Man, I was rushing through this, and totally forgot about that choice bit of Seneca! He’s definitely not a bookworm like Pliny, but I get from him the sense of affecting to be a gentleman amateur, because he certainly *wrote* a hell of a lot.

      And the quote – surprisingly enough – was from Gallagher. In retrospect, I can see that he was far more of a ‘regular guy’ than most employed at the university, but he had no doubt picked up the idea from some earlier mentor just as I did.

  1. What, which faculty member said this? “When I was a sophomore in college, I was speaking with a professor and expressed my own disinclination to go to the beach over spring break. He was quick to encourage this nascent sense of vocational devotion, and told me that if anyone ever told me to “get a life,” I should respond to them, “This is my life.”

  2. Montaigne has a lovely passage on the perils of reading:
    “Books have plenty of pleasant qualities for those who know how to select them. But there is no good without ill. The pleasure we take in them is no purer or untarnished than any other. Reading has its disadvantages – and they are weighty ones: it exercises the soul, but during that time the body (my care for which I have not forgotten) remains inactive and grows earth-bound and sad. I know of no excess more harmful to me in my declining years, nor more to be avoided.”

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