Living among books

Joseph Epstein on The Bookish Life:

Willa Cather, a writer I have come to admire as the greatest twentieth-century American novelist, chose not to allow any of her novels put into what she called “school editions,” lest young students, having to read her under the duress of school assignments, never return to her books when they were truly ready for them. She was no dope, Miss Cather.

Twenty or so years ago there was a vogue for speed-reading. (“I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes,” Woody Allen quipped. “It involves Russia.”) But why, one wonders, would you wish to speed up an activity that gives pleasure? Speed-reading? I’d as soon take a course in speed-eating or speed-lovemaking. Yet the notion of speed generally hovers over the act of reading. “A real page-turner,” people say of certain novels or biographies. I prefer to read books that are page-stoppers, that cause me to stop and contemplate a striking idea, an elegant phrase, an admirably constructed sentence.1

In the risky generalization department, slow readers tend to be better readers—more careful, more critical, more thoughtful. I myself rarely read more than twenty-five or thirty pages of a serious book in a single sitting. Reading a novel by Thomas Mann, a short story by Chekhov, a historical work by ­Theodor Mommsen, essays by Max Beerbohm, why would I wish to rush through them? Savoring them seems more sensible. After all, you never know when you will pass this way again.

“The art of not reading is a very important one,” Schopenhauer wrote.

It consists in not taking an interest in whatever may be engaging the attention of the general public at any particular time. When some political or ecclesiastical pamphlet, or novel, or poem is making a great commotion, you should remember that he who writes for fools always finds a large public. A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.

Notes

  1. Compare R.A. Lafferty.

One thought on “Living among books”

  1. I suspect speed-reading has its place; for things like self-help or business or similar “informational” books where maybe 10% of the content actually applies to the person reading. In that case, skimming through fast might be worth it.

    Other than that, speed-reading so you can say you read X numbers of books….well, it seems almost like the Don Juan reporting notches on his bedpost. Who cares, really? Other insecure people who compare themselves to him, I guess.

    I’ve always read kind of slowly but that is okay with me. Reading for pleasure seems like something you don’t want to do fast, anyway.

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