Why Should You Read?

Will Self Wonders What the Hell We Think We’re Doing

Featured image: “Saint Augustine Working in His Study,” Sandro Botticelli, c. 1492.

The future St. Augustine’s account of his mentor Bishop Anselm’s reading habits, written during the 4th century of the Christian Era, still stands as the first definitive account of anyone doing this: “When he read his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.” Augustine’s astonishment is so palpable—while other references to such a practice prior to this are so scant—we can only infer that reading was indeed principally undertaken aloud. Certainly, with literacy uncommon in the Roman world there were fewer readers than those desirous of knowing texts; while, with the rise of a religion in which God’s revelation took a written form, this sacred imperative joined these more mundane motivations. Suffice it to say, it isn’t until the 10th century that we gain a general sense of reading becoming a solitary pursuit rather than a collective endeavor.

So why do it? Why bury your head in a book? Because let’s face it, the experience of solitary reading is qualitatively different to being read to aloud in a group—the former entails a deeper absorption in the text, and a more direct engagement with the mind shaping its language: immersive private reading leads one into a virtual reality, while being told a story with others keeps you in a social one. The analogy might be on the one hand with the individual liberty of conscience implicit in the Protestant confession, and on the other with collectively uttered Catholic credo. However, I suspect if you’ve even got this far you’re a reader anyway—and have now further self-selected by showing an interest in not just in the text, but in—if you like—the meta-text: what lies beyond the text that shapes our apprehension of it. In which case, you almost certainly know why you yourself read: it’s self-evidently to do with your enjoyment, experienced as the free play of your imagination, the stimulation of your intellect, and the engagement of your sympathy.

But as to why it should be reading specifically that enables this—and what other values we project on to this ability—these are different questions, the answers to which may provide us with some insight into the vexed further one: whither reading?

In Understanding Media (1964), that revelatory and prophetic work of cultural philosophy, Marshall McLuhan speaks of the form of human consciousness engendered by the practice of solitary reading as “the Gutenberg mind,” and calls—implicitly—for a recognition of its potential limits. Indeed, to follow his most celebrated maxim is to recognize that the message of the codex, as a medium, is that acquiring knowledge and its understanding are undertakings separated from the social realm, whether by the bone of our skulls or the boards of our book covers.

In the current era the dispute between those who view the technological assemblage of the internet and the web as some sort of panacea for our ills, and those who worry it might herald the end of everything from independent thought (whatever that might be), to literacy itself, has a slightly muted feel. I suspect the reason for this is also to be found in Understanding Media: as McLuhan pointed out, the supplanting of one medium by another can take a long time—and just as the practice of copying manuscripts by hand continued for centuries after the invention of printing, so solitary reading—conceived of importantly as an individual and private absorption in a unitary text of some length—persists, and will continue to endure long after the vast majority of copy being ingested is in the form of tiny digitized gobbets.

2020 was an exceptional year, and the evidence is certainly not conclusive, but nonetheless the pandemic almost certainly resulted in renewed interest in long-form prose and its reading. There’s a nice sort of asynchrony here, with the reviving of the Gutenberg mind being occasioned by the sort plague with which he would’ve been all too familiar. But when we ask why should we read? The answer surely cannot be that it’s the substrate best suited for cultivating a certain type of human persona—one that sees itself as unitary, maintaining identity through space and time, and capable of accounting for itself in a linear fashion conformable to external correlates—a persona, in other words, like a book.

To be able to read and not try to at least read well, strikes me as a profligate waste of a skill that it’s difficult to acquire, and one which if mastered delivers such extraordinary delights.

Yet just as the pandemic has got some of us scuttling back within its covers, so the longer term decline in what we might term purposive reading, has been inversely—arguably perversely—correlated with what the philosopher, Galen Strawson, terms “strong narrativity”: that belief not only in the book-like human persona, but in a categorical imperative to convey its contents to others.

The shibboleth: “everyone has a book in them” has mutated into the rather more hectoring: “everyone has a tale to tell, and they must be able to recount it in order to be accorded full moral status.” It might be churlish of me—an autodidact, who believes the true writer to be necessarily so—to observe that this “philosophy” has itself developed in lockstep with creative writing programs, but there it is: having paid cash-on-the-nail to become proficient tale-tellers, creative writing alumni and their instructors alike (many of whom are themselves also alumni), move to enact a closure that cannot—given the underlying economic metric—be anything but for the most part ethical. From this righteousness proceeds the proposition: I read (and am read), therefore I am, and I am good.

But shorn of a progressive worldview based on Enlightenment values that equate technological with moral advance, and figure human being itself as a meta-narrative whereby the West writes itself into supremacy, it’s impossible to argue for mandatory reading: “To get up in the morning, in the fullness of youth, and open a book! Now, that’s what I call vicious.” Is Nietzsche’s admonition in Ecce Homo—and it’s one I’m fond of retailing to my own students, withal that I’d like them to read a great deal more than they do. Why? Because, yes, I too have never seen anything lovelier than a tree, while some of the unloveliest things I’ve ever witnessed have been metaphors, arboreal and floral. Moreover, if the bi-directional digital medium is rendering us illiterate it’s as much because we can no longer read a map—which necessitates basic orientation—as a text.

Put bluntly, we’re becoming strangers in a strange land, moving dazedly through it, our faces wan in the up-light from our screens, as we all follow the little-blue-dot-that’s-us. Under such circumstances, nostalgia for our Gutenberg minds, while understandable, is a bit like nostalgia for hand-tolled leather satchels: a move to accessorize rather than civilize.

Besides, what about those who can neither read nor write? You don’t have to be Jacques Derrida or Paul de Man—as we’ve seen—to assert the primacy of text over speech; and nor do we have to be Socrates in order to advance the case for cultural forms that stand outside of ecriture. One of the most tedious aspects of our literary culture is this reductio ad nauseam: the vast number of novels (and indeed nonfiction works) almost exclusively concerned with the complex thoughts, tortuous feelings and subtle velleities of people—or characters—who themselves spend far too much time reading books. In a previous essay for this series I mused as to whether an MRI scan of someone reading about someone reading in an MRI scanner might teach us about how we should read—and I summon this alternative mise en abyme, of novels about people reading novels about people reading novels, to banish once and for all this bogus teleology.

By contrast, there’s nothing I like reading about more than illiterate people and non-literate cultures. One of the books I read this year during my own protracted lockdown á cause de la crise, was a taut little adventure tale by Jonathan Franklin, entitled 438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea. Like all the best books, its title is synecdochal: in 2012 José Salvador Alvarenga, an El Salvadoran fisherman was blown away from the Mexican coast aboard a 23-foot-long skiff. In short order he lost his engine, most of his supplies—and then his only companion. Subsequent to this, he did indeed drift across the Pacific Ocean for 438 days, eventually coming ashore in the Marshall Islands after traveling some 10,000 miles. Look, I can admit it—I get a cheap little thrill reading about people caught up in terrible natural disasters the way others do reading genre fiction of one kind or another. Indeed, I call this sub-genre: “schadenfic,” since my pleasure is so closely related to their, um, pain.

But that being said, whereas the likes of E.L. James couldn’t type their way out of the proverbial wet paper bag, Franklin is a skilled and even poetic writer, not least of whose skills is an ability to make vividly present to his readers scenes he himself has not witnessed. Arguably this is necessary for any competent narrative nonfiction writer—yet many fail spectacularly, often by their recourse to inventing reams of dialogue they never heard, and almost certainly were never spoken. This is not a stratagem that Franklin relies on; on the contrary, there’s a scrupulous quality to his reportage that I can’t help but feel derives equally from his meticulous interviewing of his subjects, and from the fact that his principal one—Alvarenga himself—is illiterate.

We’re becoming strangers in a strange land, moving dazedly through it, our faces wan in the up-light from our screens, as we all follow the little-blue-dot-that’s-us.

The extraordinary capacity of non-literate people to remember things is a truth universally acknowledged, while the methods they adopt to do this demonstrate that there are semiotic systems that bridge the life-worlds of different species, while not necessarily conforming to received (human) notions of the symbolic. Alvarenga’s exceptional skill as a fisherman and a sailor constituted just such a system; such that—as Franklin tells it—he was able to create for himself an imaginative world that kept him sane and functioning through almost a year-and-a-half of the most extreme imaginable isolation.

Some of the El Salvadoran’s strategies may seem barbaric to us Gutenberg minds: such as catching seafowl who landed on his skiff, expertly crippling them by breaking their wings, and then keeping them—in substantial numbers—as at once larder, pets, and—when he felt the need for some entertainment—participants in bizarre football games, refereed by himself, and played with a dried puffer fish as “ball.” But needs must—and there’s a nice symmetry here, because it’s difficult to see how anyone who’d been relying on book learning to survive such a perilous predicament, could have deployed the necessary skills to invent such a sport.

In a way, Alvarenga was simply confirming the truth of Montaigne’s observation in his seminal essay on cultural relativity, Of the Cannibals: “They are savages at the same rate that we say fruits are wild, which nature produces of herself and by her own ordinary progress; whereas, in truth, we ought rather to call those wild whose natures we have changed by our artifice and diverted from the common order.” Not only did the fisherman find a mode of being that entertained and sustained him—he also undertook a complex theological and spiritual journey, interrogating—and ultimately confirming—his own faith as he struggled to cope with his guilt at surviving, while Ezequiel Cordoba, his younger companion, had died.

I’ve no wish to romanticize savagery—how could I, when I don’t believe it exists as a state contrary to civilization; and nor, of course, do I see literacy and illiteracy as opposites. But here’s the paradox: while I, as a Gutenberg mind with no knowledge of the winds and the tides, the birds and the fish beyond the books I have read, would have undoubtedly gone the way of Cordoba in double-quick time, nonetheless, I’m privileged to be able to enter the mind of Alvarenga through the world summoned by Franklin’s words. And of course, there’s no going back anyway—unless we were to undergo some pinpoint-accurate laser-guided neurosurgery to remove the pesky cells responsible for literacy from our mind/brains. Harsh critics of the web-internet technological assemblage, such as Nicholas Carr, see in our surfing of the imagistic zeitgeist it affords us, a dangerous brain-state emerging; one in which we no longer possess the intuitive capability to form those schemas necessary for the comprehension of new data sets—whether these be the figures on a spreadsheet or the lines on a storied page.

Even in the ten years I’ve been teaching university students I’ve noticed a decline in their reading—both fewer works attempted, and these less deeply engaged with. But given I want them to read more books purely in order that they should, um, read more books, I can’t claim to be either devoid of a desire for professional closure myself, or free of a Gutenberg mind’s inherent biases: I just can’t look outside of what it might be like to have an intellect and sensibility formed by interaction with texts. Or can I? After all, I sympathized heavily Alvarenga—so perhaps, after all, this is the answer to the vexed question of why we should read: so as to anticipate, understand and so connect with the non-literate realms that surround us—whether we be separated from them by reason of space or time or technology. Carr may believe the denizens of the web are flopping about, breathless, on the verge of anoesis in these soi-disant “shallows”—our duty as good readers, surely, is to extend our imaginative sympathy to them, just as we do to Anna Karenina.

But I stress: this isn’t because I believe it makes us any better than these others in any other way: it’s simply that to be able to read and not try to at least read well, strikes me as a profligate waste of a skill that it’s difficult to acquire, and one which if mastered delivers such extraordinary delights. So, why read? Read because short of meeting and communing with them (and perhaps because of this writing about them), reading about diverse modes of being and consciousness is the best way we have of entering into them and abiding there is. To enter the flow-state of reading is to swim into other psyches with great ease, whatever their age, sex, sexual orientation, nationality, class or ethnicity. There’s this—and, for the more intellectually-minded of us there’s this conundrum: since the linguistic turn taken by Western philosophy in the early 20th century, almost all the turf wars over belief—in its broadest, most encompassing sense—have been waged on the territory afforded by language itself.

So, put simply: you cannot argue for this understanding of the Logos or that—for structuralism or deconstruction, langue or parole, the Imaginary or the Real without being a reader—and a skilled one.

Of course, it could be that all these philosophical questions about language and its component parts—including reading—are simply the arcana of an age—and its scribal class—about to choke on its own lead-particulate-spewing tailpipe. In which case, we need to read in order to face with equanimity what’s to come. You don’t have to be the Unabomber to note that there’s one medium that operates entirely efficiently not just off, but way off the grid—so: why read? Read because since the onset of bi-directional digital media, codices, predictably, have become pretty much free—while it remains entirely free and freeing to be able to experience them whenever and wherever; a phenomenon the Kindle reader program celebrates with its homepage illustration of a winsome looking child, in profile, reading in silence beneath an equally winsome tree.

Will Self
Will Self is the author of many novels and books of nonfiction, including Great Apes; The Book of Dave; How the Dead Live, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel of the Year; The Butt, winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction; and Umbrella, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. He lives in South London.





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