I used to think the world would be a better place if everyone read. And by better, I mean wittier, wiser, way more interesting and, yes, happy. At the very least, a whole lot of asshats and troublemakers would be occupied turning pages instead of causing trouble and asshattery. I was not a child when I believed this.
And then I changed my mind. Reluctantly. The internet introduced me to lots of people who read and are still short on empathy, reasoning and curiosity. Too many seem to be looking for support for their world view, looking to pluck out passages that describe exactly what they already think. I’ve seen more Ayn Rand quotes than can possibly be good for anyone – particularly Ayn Rand enthusiasts.
I had to accept that reading lost a lot of its power if people were doing it so they had something to swing around at cocktail parties. If critical skills are turned off so they can show off. There’s nothing quite so mind-numbing (to me) as talking to someone who’s read Ulysses and has nothing but glowing praise.
(I’ve admitted before to really liking James Joyce, but only for doing some of that fancy shmancy literary criticism stuff. You know. Laboratory work. I should also admit to having an issue with the adoration heaped on David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, that spillage of every little ego-loaded literary driplet as if he was swiping off the foam that comes with ideas churning. Fair enough that he wrote that way. It’s the continuing adoration that makes me flinch.)
But anyway. I changed my mind back. The reading I’d imagined in the first place is bigger and all inclusive. Catholic. It’s not done occasionally – or for an occasion. It’s not done with the goal of wielding a title or going into a philosophical skirmish. We don’t choose books as weapons or fashion statements or things to impress.
This kind of reading, the reading that would make the world so much more wonderful, is nearly irresistible. We can hardly believe how it lights up our minds, ignites little dust bunnies (sometimes, they even sort of combust), fills us with the oxygen of ideas tucked in words.
If we read this way, we’d at least start to read everything (and we’d also put down a lot more books after 30 pages when we realized they were crap). Maybe we’d be afraid, maybe we’d disagree, maybe we’d even be disgusted, but … so what? What do we think life is for?