Reading -- among all its joys -- is an attempt to reach immortality

January 25, 1998|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Why do you read the books you take most seriously? Your response is your secret. I am not quite sure I have a certain answer myself. A fairly ready inventory of reasons leaps to mind: To experience another life, one that has gravity for me. To satisfy an otherwise insatiable curiosity. To escape mundanity while avoiding the narcotic of escapism. Pure joy.

But above all that, for myself and I believe many others, a main answer has to do with the idea that reading an important book works a change, usually a permanent one, in the reader.

I know few if any better expressions of the magic of books at their most serious than one that appears in "Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber," by David Gelernter (The Free Press. 155 pages. $21):

"A natural wilderness is just a wilderness. A man-made wilderness accumulates history and a special exalted grade of silence. So I love standing in Sterling Library's [at Yale] least-popular aisles like a child alone in fresh snow, but without the frozen ears and wet feet. Libraries have it over nature in many ways."

Sure. They're full of books.

Plato famously insisted in his "Apology" that "The life which is unexamined is not worth living." The suggestions that roll out of that provocation have kept philosophers, theologians, poets, novelists and playwrights busy ever since. (Not to speak of providing reliable income to psychoanalysts.)

Live a life

It would be foolhardy - in fact, wrong - to reject that insistence. But I believe there is something approaching equal truth in the variation - or is it inversion? - that would insist "the life that is not lived is not worth examining." So please don't abandon real involvement and activity for the abstract and solely intellectual. In such a life finally there are only dead echoes, no live voices, no birdsongs, no dances.

That all may sound awfully high-flown, a flirtation with the evangelical. But think about it a few minutes. Has your life - at least in sense of awareness and perhaps far beyond - not been changed by the books you most vividly remember having read?

So much in every life is imposed or immutable that anybody who is individually serious about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness bears the duty to seize the aspects that are susceptible to control.

One is whether you read. Another is what.

In his inaugural lecture on being given the Chair of Literary Semiology, College de France, in 1978, Roland Barthes argued that literature stands in importance above all the sciences, all other forms of knowledge.

"If, by some unimaginable excess of socialism or barbarism," he said, "all but one of our disciplines were to be expelled from our educational system, it is the discipline of literature that would have to be saved, for all knowledge, all the sciences are contained in the literary monument. ... Literature ... is absolutely, categorically realist: it is reality."

Barthes' observations and theories are in general far from my ideal of clarity or even coherence. I find the body of work of the entire French school of modern culture theory more absurd than useful.

But the single point I just quoted is the heart of the importance of reading, I believe. And, at risk of sounding sermonical, I argue that its implied insistence - that you read some real literature - is important.

(For the self-punishing, the whole Barthes lecture can be most easily found in "A Barthes Reader," edited and with an introduction by Susan Sontag. Hill and Wang. 495 pages paperback. $17. Published in 1982.)

But hold Barthes' clear sentiment about literature high in mind for a moment as you read these words of Harold Bloom:

"Reading the very best writers - let us say Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy - is not going to make us better citizens. Art is perfectly useless, according to the sublime Oscar Wilde, who was right about everything. He also told us that all bad

poetry is sincere. Had I the power to do so, I would command that these words be engraved above every gate at every university, so that each student might ponder the splendor of the insight."

Distant limits

Being both wiser and smarter, Bloom has a far richer sense of irony than Barthes did. But, though otherwise apparently irreconcilably at odds - almost at distant ideological extremes - the two men are really saying much the same thing.

Later in the same book, Bloom insists, "The Common Reader ... does not read for easy pleasure or to expiate social guilt, but to enlarge a solitary existence." And a few pages further on, near the end of the book, he concludes:

"We do not read to unpack our hearts. ... Traditions tell us that the free and solitary self writes in order to overcome mortality. I HTC think that the self ... ultimately reads with one aim only: to confront greatness ... the quest for a transcendence of limits. Our common fate is age, sickness, death, oblivion. Our common hope, tenuous but persistent, is for some version of survival."

If you are befuddled about what you might read, on the serious side, you can do a lot worse than to take Bloom as your guide. I know no one who can do the job better. These quotes are from "The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages," by Harold Bloom (Harcourt Brace, 578 pages, $29.95). Brilliantly worthwhile.

And, oh, yes, there is still reading for distraction, for a soporific during insomnia, to find out how to fix a faucet now that plumbers' house calls all start at $425. Almost the same reasons for watching television.

There's nothing shameful, nothing wrong, about any of those purposes.

But there are better things to do with your mind.

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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