Reading presents thoughts as gifts, and the best books, by preventing us from passively succumbing to other people’s pictures and their self-serving agendas, cooperate in saving our souls.
You’ve all probably heard the expression “preaching to the choir,” which means trying to persuade the faithful of what they already believe. The opposite of preaching to the faithful choir is propagandizing the disengaged crowd. This latter preaching needs to be a little lurid, just to raise attention, and somewhat gross, so as to trump the competition.
I know that I’m addressing an audience of the already convinced who are not in need of a pep talk but could perhaps do with a visitor’s more subdued reflection on their commitment. I understand that commitment to have two aspects: You are willing to read books from a large yet selective list, and you submit to a way of teaching which Professor Wright described to me as “the Socratic method.”
Now it seems true to me that there is some method in Socrates’ divine madness, but though he has his very own way, it is not a method, strictly speaking, that is to say, a codified procedure applicable universally, willy-nilly.
You will recall that in his Apology, that is, the “Defense” of his way of life, Socrates famously says: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I get a wicked pleasure from pointing out on every suitable occasion that he says something much more rousing. He actually says: “The unexamined life is not livable.” In other words, you haven’t lived if you haven’t reflected on your living. You’ve been carried along on the stream of your life until one day you went under—and that was that. To make your merely lived life come alive, you have to recall and review it. To rephrase Socrates: The once-lived life has hardly happened. Live twice!
Let me take account here of your age as undergraduates. Most of you will be in your late teens or early twenties. So if all goes well, less than a quarter of your life has gone by. Is Socrates asking you to wax prematurely autobiographical? No, the reflection in which he has faith is not age-related. According to students of child development, you discerned objects before you’d been in this world more than three weeks, so you’ve had zillions of things to think about. When you were two years old you began—the terrible two’s—to be intensely aware of yourself as a willful being, a self-assertive little imp.
Recall that Socrates is a great believer in Apollo’s saying, posted in his temple: “Know thyself.” By “thyself,” Socrates does not mean your unique, private, personal, idiosyncratic self, of which he wants us to take notice mostly so as to manage its waywardness. He means: Discover and know your human nature. One superlatively mystifying feature of that nature is our ability—we do not know whether any other animal possesses it—to talk to ourselves.
This ability for self-communion is evident even earlier than is the feature of self-assertion. Those of you who have babysat pre-linguistic infants might have experienced what the experts call jargoning—an infinitely charming jabbering, a kind of sweet proto-language that goes on in the crib—especially early in the morning when no one’s up— self to self. To me, it seems like the beginning of self-knowledge and an indication that not much life experience is required to engage in it. We are, specifically homo sapiens, “the discerning human” from birth, and we can, nearly from birth, reflect on objects in the world outside and on ourselves within. The word “reflect” means “bend back,” return to, double down on what comes into, appears before, our human awareness, our consciousness. While I’m at it: The very word “consciousness” means “knowing jointly [with oneself].”
I’ll just stop to point out that some of what I’ve said so far I thought out on my own, but I got its shaping and phrasing from reading books. The “but” is important here. Thinking is not in a straight and easy relation to reading. Reading presents thoughts as gifts; thinking produces thoughts as accomplishments. That is a tension I shall keep in mind as I now go on to tell you why you should be doing what you are in fact doing: reading books. One way to put the quandary is: How can I summon Socrates’ invitation to reflect in support of reading books when studying books is not necessarily thinking things out? Of course, he himself read a lot: Homer, whom he knew by heart, the tragedians, the writers of speeches, and most wonderfully, the philosophers who preceded him and who would one day be called “the pre-Socratics.”
So now to reasons for reading. But one more thing: There’s reading and then there’s reading. There’s the kind called texting, done on a minuscule tablet with a limit to the ciphers used, which has, in effect, given up the ghost of significance. Then there’s the kind of easy feed, the best-seller, which we scarf up in a state of pleasant relaxation. Then there’s the instruction booklet, infinitely annoying because widget A never does fit into aperture B. I won’t attempt to list all the types of reading we do, but instead, I’ll leap to the list of books to which your program of learning is in fact devoted. These books all share one characteristic: They are demanding. They’re not taken up lightly, nor do they go down easily, nor are they irritatingly inscrutable. They are, instead, difficult. Some, like Hume’s great Treatise, are lucid on the surface and more and more complex as you penetrate it; others, like Kant’s Critiques, are obscure when you first open them but become quite intelligible as you go. All require your undivided attention and repay it with insights that are at once new to you and also welcome to your intellect. They deliver adventitious, that is, novel, matter which nevertheless immediately sits well in your intellect—or rouses energizing opposition. The fictions among these works also require alert being-there. You can’t scan or abstract a great novel: The plot is an extrusion of the characters’ being, not their prop, as in a routine romance.
These works have depth, which means that they open up successively, are in effect inexhaustible, so that a reading program like yours is an assignment for life, for re-reading. By the way, “depth” in books is, of course, a metaphor, and one element in reading “deep” books ought to be to think out the literal meaning of the figure of speech: What exactly does it mean to get deep into a deep book? That’s not for tonight.
Such books have a collective name, one I’ve already introduced: They’re great, “great books.” (I hasten to say that while all great books are ipso facto demanding, because they’re rich, the converse is false. There are plenty of very difficult works, usually perpetrated at universities, that are pretty meager. The usual reason is that while plain language expresses the author’s thought, difficult jargon displaces it. By and large, undergraduates should not be reading such derivative works.)
I really believe that greatness designates a class of books, a class by itself, the so-called classics. The notion of incomparable excellence is now, in the face of a certain dogmatic egalitarianism, somewhat in disrepute. It’s another interesting issue I’ll set aside tonight—We’ll see who comes out ahead in the long run.
Now I’ll get down to my job and give you my answer to the question of my title: “Why read?” Of course, I mean: Why read books and, moreover, why read great books? As for the “book” part, I don’t care what so-called delivery system you use. If you like, bring your text on stone tablets, like those Moses inscribed on Mount Sinai, or on an electronic tablet, as long as you can readily flip to the page we’re all on. As for the “great” part, come with some faith in the faculty’s reading list. And that brings me to a first reason.
One. Great books held in common and conversation about them is the cause of the warmest, most long-lasting, least problem-fraught friendships life has. The friends you room with, work with, play with come and go as the occasion arises and falls apart; reading friendships survive the decades. I’m speaking from experience here.
There used to be a name for this club: the Republic of Letters, whose citizens are cosmopolitan in reach of interest and global in human sympathy. A faculty that has the preparation and the courage to choose and require a reading list like yours is a small sub-community of this commonwealth. Belonging requires preparation because to compose such a list you have to read extensively and critically; it requires courage because you have to be willing to judge decisively and articulately. The same demands go for you students in reverse order: You have to have the guts to commit yourself to real, substantial study and then you have to prepare your assignments with concentration. It’s way different from the flabbily social relations of casual friends focused on fun, or that pretended cosmopolitanism of, say, eating falafel or wearing a sari—all good fun, but not quite for real. To see and hear another human being expressive in the light of greatness is a pleasure of a higher order.
So the first reward is simply invaluable: There is no price you can put on it. It’s that communion of friends, that commonwealth of readers, I’ve just described. I should soberly qualify the extent of such friendships here. You’ve read Aristotle on friendship and might recall that he inquires into the number of friends it is possible to have: at the most as many as live nearby. He would have been simply disgusted at the inhuman greed for quantity that is now called “friending.” It follows that the global friendship of readers is potential. You will gain a world of people who could well, who might be, your friends, real friends, soul-mates. Some, a few of these, will be actual, face-to-face or voice-to-voice friends.
Two. Here’s my second reason for reading great books. Such books have substance and, as I said, depth. You might say: That’s underwhelming in its hazy generality. There’s life itself, which is realer, more here and now, more inexhaustible than a page with little squiggles on it.
A favorite line of mine is from Robert Browning’s “A Grammarian’s Funeral:”
Other’s mistrust and say, ‘But time escapes: Live now or never!’
He said, ‘What’s time? Leave now for dogs and apes! Man has Forever.’
The scholar’s advisors have a point. Since the purpose of reading is to appropriate life, why not just live it, now? After all, Socrates said that to gain our life we must think about it. He didn’t say “study books” (although, as I’ve said, he had actually read everything available. And though he himself dictated no scroll to any slave as far as we know, when he was in his sixties, Plato came into his life, and then he must have known that his ways and thoughts would be written up.)
Well then, why read books rather than live reality? Or, if you feel you need formal preparation, why not find, more likely in California than, say, in Maryland, a School of Life? Its curriculum might be “World 1.00: You travel all over” and “Myself 2.00: You talk about yourself.” In fact, before hard times shut down most alternative programs, some such courses existed. Let me tell you: It wasn’t as joyful as it sounds. Why not? Because the sightseers’ life isn’t all that real, and self-concentrated talk misses the real self.
What then is the substance and depth I am attributing to great books, and why are they a gift to us? Substance is persistent thereness; these books are not in the canine and apish Now Browning’s Grammarian scorns. Adolescent preferences fade away; these books gain glow as you age. I’m again speaking from experience here—my own and my friends. Substantial is what great books are in themselves—depth is what they offer us. This is a very personal way of talking, so I’ll explain it.
I think that we have laminated, that is to say layered, souls. If you like, our souls are stratified, as were the deposits we found and numbered when I was an archeologist in Athens, some sixty years ago. So also is the world stratified. It has a surface layer: the phenomena, the way things in general look on their outside, their surface appearance. Both our souls and our world challenge us to dig into them, to penetrate the surface. The same things, for example, have very variable looks, depending on the light that shines on them and the perspective we have on them. For example, on the surface, we are our idiosyncratic selves, below that, we carry each our shaping ethnic background, yet deeper, we have our common humanity. So with the world. On the surface each body varies from all others in infinite detail; beneath that, all are tangibly shaped material; still deeper all lose their shaped materiality and become the numerable mass-points called “m” in physics.
Here is what books do: They delineate these levels for us and take us into them. They help us penetrate into ourselves and into the world. I think this penetration is what Socrates means by the examination, which, if we leave undone, we aren’t all there; we don’t exist on all the levels beneath the surface. Of course, the writers of great books know that “depth” is a spatial metaphor, a visualizing figure of speech. So, as we work our way into the depths, we must also ask: What is the literal, the concrete, meaning of shallow or deep living—but not tonight.
Three. Great books help us do what we can’t do for ourselves; they are our supporters in a life-enhancing activity. But once again: Why turn to books rather than directly to life itself? In the end, we have to do it all by ourselves, for ourselves. Why not face ourselves and our world in that direct way? Here’s the answer, straight and harsh: We’re not up to it. Most of us, you and I and your professors, faced with all that is within and without us, simply shut down or take to babbling. So we need the boot-strappers, the so-called original thinkers who, though they too have teachers, are able to go beyond them on their own.
You will have seen, you must have felt, the danger. We need teachers. Then how do we avoid becoming mere disciples? How do readers of great books escape becoming their captives, escape from their constricting embrace? It’s alright for a while, especially in youth, to indenture yourself to a master. A year of devotion, of surrender to Socrates, or Nietzsche, or Hegel, is the mark of an ardent soul. It’s the beginning of expertise, but it’s also the end of the examined life. (Oddly enough, it’s the writers who seem least to want such followers who most attract them.)
But here’s the saving grace: Your own great books list contains little short of ten dozen authors. Just because they’re great, these books differ from each other in non-trivial ways. Even if one author captivates you, there are about one hundred and nineteen others to liberate you. Non-judgmentalism is nice in social situations, but in matters of intellect, judgments are what we have to make. The reading of quite a few great books will return you to the edgy vitality that is part of being all there. I’ll put it this way: such various reading will make you critical, not in the sense of carping denial, but in the spirit of affirming interest.
And when you finally actively and steadfastly embrace a belief—embrace it rather than being captured by it—you, the student, may, as I see it, lay claim to it as your own. For if Plato, for example, hatched an idea when he was, say thirty-eight, and you received, understood, and adopted it at eighteen, then you are its legitimate claimant, having come to it first in your own biographical time.
Four. Great books are affirmative. There seem to me to be two camps with respect to liberal higher education. I’ll call one, for short, the problem-solving party and the other the life-shaping camp. The first, the problematic party, wants education to be, as they say, “relevant,” to concern itself with the understanding and cure of current ills. I’m not on that side because I think that finding those solutions to present evils that don’t mire us in unintended consequences requires much common sense and practical experience, such as even the most promising eighteen-year-olds shouldn’t and can’t have—that’s not what it is to be promisingly young.
The camp in which I live thinks that the central purpose of a liberal education is to give students a chance at working out a picture of happiness.
Administrators, some of whom believe that schools should be held statistically accountable for outcomes, want alumni to fill out questionnaires asking them, for example, to rate their post-BA happiness. What, I ask myself, if a lot of the graduates of my college thought that they’d never again been as happy, as alive, as they were reading books with us? Would that count for or against us?
I think it would prove that we’d given them a chance at a truly useful education. For to live well with yourself and act effectively in the world, one knowledge matters above all others, the knowledge of what constitutes, what makes for happiness, happiness as distinct from pleasure, fun, or excitement. If your learning life at the university was a dreary routine of socializing fun and reluctant hitting the books or scanning the screen, you’ll not be much good to the world since you won’t know what “good” is—know it not as a formula but as an experience.
What is the relation of great works to the experience of happiness? It is a very close one. Think of Augustine’s Confessions, which is on your list. The author experiences and meticulously describes his sins and agonies—but the reading of it is grippingly exhilarating. Think of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, whose hero descends into all the horrors and miseries of a tyrannical soul—but the watching of it is grandly awesome. Great books can depict a world that is hostile, souls that are stricken, fates that are terrible. But they are not just depressing, repulsive or frightening. They are, by their very greatness, affirmative. It’s a characteristic I’m sure of but endlessly puzzled by. Let me give a particularly poignant example from a great work, a book of the audible sort: Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. It sings and tells of a horrible death by torture, the Crucifixion—but it is altogether beautiful. How can that be? How is it done? Another enigma not for tonight.
Five. So I’ll just move on to my next to last reason for reading: the toning of the soul, which follows from the affirmative nature of greatness. If you get to be ninety, as many of you may, you will have lived through roughly fifty-five million heart beats. Life is wearying and the flesh is weak; the spirit cannot possibly maintain a pulsing excitement for every moment of our lifetimes. We are often low and deflated—at least those of us lucky enough not to live in constant fear, want, or pain. The blues or blahs are the null mode of civilized humanity; whoever called it “quiet desperation” was being too dramatic. Books of depth and substance can help here, better than light reading, say a Harlequin Romance, that acts more like those Chinese-American meals, which fill you but don’t satisfy you. In making demands on us and then really repaying our efforts, great books tone our souls—they impart to them a vitalizing tension.
People who have the mandate and the leisure to think, to study, to foster the spirit, are especially prone to what medieval monks called acedia, a kind of spiritual moping, a revulsion from accepting the very blessings for which they really long. All students who don’t study like automata know it. Its mild form is the inability to pull yourself together, to get down to it; its more serious form is being stalled, distracted, sleepy, mildly—not clinically—depressed. If you can only collect yourself enough to “pick up [the book] and read” (I’m quoting from a crucial event in Augustine’s Confessions) a great book will pull you out of this languor.
For such reading requires a dual mind, a kind of sound schizophrenia. You have to entertain within yourself both a critical and a reverent spirit. What I mean is that your critique is not rejection but engagement, that your doubts are honor done a text by close attention. And your reverence, far from being passive submission, is an active faith in the author’s greatness. I’ll give an example. While I’m writing this talk, my seniors and I are reading Karl Marx’s Capital. In my personal opinion, this book has, more than any other, wreaked havoc in the world, largely because of an ingeniously false theory that demonizes working for a wage. Yet all—well most—of our intellects are on full alert, engaged by Marx’s vivid and lucid prose and his acute, complex and original theorizing.
So you may smile at my notion that reading Marx is therapy for feeling low, but I’m serious about this: If only you can bring yourself to sit down to it, reading great books arouses your vital spirits.
Six. So now to my last point which also concerns reading as a therapy, a therapy highly specific to an element of our current condition. That condition is most evident in cyberspace, where many of you probably live a large part of your life. There you find verbal texts, to be sure, but also a veritable flood of imagery, pictures made by others for their own purposes and poured out before or over you. This mudslide threatens to swamp and suffocate what seems to me our second most wonderful and very mysterious ability. (The most wonderful of all is, of course, our ability to think and to say what we think.)
This mysterious ability—brain science has come nowhere near explaining it—is our power to form mental images, to see internally, to re-view within what we remember having seen, or even to produce pictures of what we’ve never seen. It is this capacity, absolutely necessary to a livable inner life, that is threatened by the electronic image tsunami.
Now think of books. Children’s books have lots of pictures and few words. Great novels have hundreds of pages of bare words—sometimes over seven hundred. But if some bold spirit has contributed a few figure plates, I, for one, usually say to myself: “That’s not how she”—say Natasha Rostov in War and Peace—“looks at all; I’ve seen her.” Now imagine that some idiot undertook to illustrate what Hegel calls the “gallery of figures,” in which the world-spirit appears in his Phenomenology of the Spirit. That would take the cake in ludicrousness. And yet I’ve walked down that gallery, too—illustrated, so to speak, my own apprehension of Hegel’s intellect.
Seen Natasha, viewed the incarnate world-spirit! Where? In my imagination, of course, in my mind’s eye. Verbal texts incite, demand internal visualization. Logical and mathematical texts often require inscribing diagrams in your internal visual medium. Poetry (epic and lyric) or fictions (short stories and novels) can be thought of as potential pictures—instructions for forming mental images. Often you don’t know what’s going on until you actualize those directions. I can give examples in the question period.
This is a good place to end, though of course there are more good reasons for reading. It’s, in fact, the best place to stop, because if texts of words are indeed exercises in visualization, in actively generating our own images from well-wrought words, if they are in fact exercises that prevent us from passively succumbing to other people’s pictures and their self-serving agendas, then we might conclusively say of reading the best of books: They cooperate in saving our souls.
This essay was given as a talk at the Torrey Honors Institute, Biola University, La Mirada, CA (March 2016). Miss Brann welcomes questions/comments via mail: Dr. Eva Brann, St. John’s College, 60 College Avenue, Annapolis, MD, 21401-1655 (she does not use computers).
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The featured image is “A Reclining Woman Reading” by Albert Ritzberger and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.