Saturday 21 January 2017

Why to Read?

According to my parents, I was not a child that took to reading. They tried a lot of tactics to get me interested in books, before finally finding some success with comic books. Even then, I have remained a slow reader, who occasionally struggles with word order and spellings. However, what I have lacked in natural speed, I have made up for with determination, and now I list reading as my favoured pastime.

Lately though, I have been dissatisfied with my reading. Too often, I think, I have picked up books because they just happened to be in front of me, or because, in my laziness, I fell back upon some comfortable genre, instead of choosing my books with careful intelligence.  Lately, I have found no challenge in the books I’ve read.

I had been having these thoughts a lot as last year came to an end. Then, by happenstance, I found myself in a small charity bookshop in my wife’s hometown. Upon the shelf, I saw a small red volume entitled Sesame and Lillies by John Ruskin. I knew of Ruskin more by reputation than acquaintance, having read only a single lecture by him, but I find him an intriguing figure. He spoke a lot about art and its relationship to society.

One of the interesting things about buying really old books is that they do not have blurbs. This book was old enough that it contained no information at all on when it was printed. So, knowing nothing but the author, I turned over £1 to the man at the counter and took my new book home. 

It is by sheer coincidence that the first two lectures (of the three in the book) are about ‘what to read’. In truth, that topic is just a launching point to wander over a variety of ideas, but it still struck me as a very strange coincidence.

At the same time I had been considering my reading, I had also been considering starting a ‘Commonplace Book’, that is my own collection of wisdom that I have gleaned from books. So, I began my commonplace book with some quotes I found in Ruskin. I will share a couple here, on the subject of reading:

No book is worth anything which is not worth much; nor is it serviceable, until it has been read, and re-read, and loved, and loved again; and marked, so that you can refer to the passages you want in it, as a soldier can seize the weapon he needs in an armoury, or a housewife bring the spice she needs from her store.

That to use books rightly, was to go to them for help: to appeal to them, when our knowledge and power of thought failed; to be led by them into the wider sight, purer conception than our own and receive from them the united sentence of the judges and councils of all time, against our solitary and unstable opinion.

So, my goal for this year is to challenge myself with my reading, to actively seek out books that contain wisdom or that will challenge my thinking. I will still read science-fiction, fantasy, and adventure fiction, but only if I have strong reason to believe those works to be above average (why bother reading the average?). We shall see how I get on.


  1. A noble goal!

    I've been shocked lately to find out how few people of my acquaintance actually spend any time reading (or even have physical books in their house). I'll share a couple more reading-related quotes that come to mind:

    "Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others." - C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

    And of course the classic:

    "The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them." - Mark Twain

  2. All true. I must try harder.

  3. I am very lucky I have always loved books and get the chance to read them to children, being a teacher, it brings both me and them, I hope, great joy. I always try to instill in my students how fortunate they are to be able to read and never to take it for granted. I am due to retire soon and reading to children will be the main thing I will miss.

  4. A lovely post, books of all kinds are a wonderful thing !

  5. Well said by all. Being a child of a librarian I grew up with all kinds of books and a love of reading that hasn't diminished over the years. My only complaint is to many books to read and never enough time.

  6. “Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.” W.H. Auden

  7. Very interesting post.

    I have been thinking similarly recently.
    I used to read a lot, but have noticed studying tends not only to reduce your spare time to read, but also to diminish the desire to do so (due to the volume of "forced" readings).
    I have to start being more selective about which books I read, so I at least get more out of it the few times I do grab a book in my spare time.