It’s not often that I get deep and meaningful on a Sunday morning, but I did today when I stumbled across an essay collection from nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), hosted at the always useful University of Adelaide ebook repository. The essay (chapter) that really struck a chord with me is the one titled On Reading and Books, in which Schopenhauer discusses – with an overbearing tone of snobbery mind you – not only man’s habit of consuming books fervently at pace, but also those readers who forsake classic works of literature in favour of the shiny and new (yep, as much a ‘problem’ in the nineteenth century as it is today it would seem).
Firstly, let me address Schopenhauer’s opinions on reading only new books while ignoring the classics. He’s scathing and somewhat overly dramatic in his words, but his comments are nonetheless thought-provoking:
Oh, how like one commonplace mind is to another! How they are all fashioned in one form! How they all think alike under similar circumstances, and never differ! This is why their views are so personal and petty. And a stupid public reads the worthless trash written by these fellows for no other reason than that it has been printed to-day, while it leaves the works of great thinkers undisturbed on the bookshelves.
Incredible are the folly and perversity of a public that will leave unread writings of the noblest and rarest of minds, of all times and all countries, for the sake of reading the writings of commonplace persons which appear daily, and breed every year in countless numbers like flies; merely because these writings have been printed to-day and are still wet from the press. It would be better if they were thrown on one side and rejected the day they appeared, as they must be after the lapse of a few years. They will then afford material for laughter as illustrating the follies of a former time.
It is because people will only read what is the newest instead of what is the best of all ages, that writers remain in the narrow circle of prevailing ideas, and that the age sinks deeper and deeper in its own mire.
Does Schopenhauer have a point? Do we not find in literary circles today, and especially on social media platforms, throngs of readers who seem to jump upon and fawn over newly published books, for no other reason than they are ‘still wet from the press’? And if Schopenhauer considered this a big issue in the nineteenth century, is the ‘problem’ not exponentially bigger today, what with the choice and availability of books being limitless, and our exposure to them being almost ceaseless? By our very nature we are always drawn towards the new of course, but ultimately are we forsaking ourselves by ignoring the established classics, over the quick hit rush of euphoria we get by being bang up to date and on trend?
The ‘trash’ of today will become the classics of tomorrow
Schopenhauer would have us believe that we really are losing out by reading books that are ‘written merely with a view to making money or procuring places’ as he so cynically puts it, because in effect, what with man’s limited time, they are keeping us away from the ‘good books and their noble aims’. But who actually decides what a good book is, and whether it comes with noble aims or not? The books that Schopenhauer is dismissing as ‘trash’ in his time (the essay from what I can tell was written around 1850), are no doubt some of the same books that we revere as classics today. Sure, from his perspective and in his context we perhaps can see more clearly what Schopenhauer deems to be trashy and outwith the classics (which basically means anything new in his eyes, it would seem), but projected on to our own age the literary landscape is painted entirely differently, as it will be in another hundred years or so when some of the books that we consider mainstream and trashy today will be seen as tomorrow’s classics.
As a fan of classic literature and an advocate for reading as much of it as is possible, I subscribe to Schopenhauer’s view to some degree. His words excite me because I too am a firm believer in building a strong reading foundation in the classics. Why? Simply because when one has been taught an ‘old school’ lesson in how a book should be written, then one is better able to read and critique more modern works and identify their shortcomings and the failures, while also seeing their successes and glories. ‘There is nothing that so greatly recreates the mind as the works of the old classic writers’ says Schopenhauer, and I’m inclined to agree with him.
What defines a classic?
How do I personally define that which is a classic? Simply any book that has stood the test of time, and endured through generations, giving as much value and worth to a reader today as it did when published decades or indeed centuries ago. These are the books I feel that help to give the reader the strongest foundation, and prepare him fully for any journey that he may take through the literary landscape of today.
However, I think that taking Schopenhauer’s narrow-minded view and submerging oneself solely in the classics while ignoring all of the ‘shiny and new’, is just as bad as reading only the new while ignoring the old. The literature of our time (of any time) defines our culture. It provides insight and understanding of the world we live in, and it draws us to fresh and new ways of thinking, while exposing us to ideas that continue to grow and evolve in our world. It’s important to wander this modern literary landscape, and to harvest from it what we can, but I do feel most strongly that in order to do so to the greatest extent, one first has to build a strong foundation through reading classic literature.
But of course setting oneself off on the task of building that strong foundation in classic literature, is doing exactly what Schopenhauer is suggesting, while totally contradicting what I’ve said about needing to read modern literature too. So ultimately the solution of course, is balance. While moving forward in the modern literary landscape we must also have one foot – and at times, both feet – rooted in the past. The ideal way if one has not already established a strong foundation in classic reading, is to juggle and to take turn about between new and old, reading a modern title one week/month, followed by a classic, the next. In doing so one will at least be able to make progress on building their foundation, while at the same time revelling in the best of both worlds.
Gorging on literature
At the start I mentioned another topic that Schopenhauer weaved into his essay, that of gorging on literature to one’s detriment. This is something a little less cut and dry for me, and it’s something I think about often i.e. does reading too much do more harm than good? Here’s some of what Schopenhauer says about it:
When we read, another person thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental process. It is the same as the pupil, in learning to write, following with his pen the lines that have been pencilled by the teacher. Accordingly, in reading, the work of thinking is, for the greater part, done for us. This is why we are consciously relieved when we turn to reading after being occupied with our own thoughts. But, in reading, our head is, however, really only the arena of some one else’s thoughts. And so it happens that the person who reads a great deal — that is to say, almost the whole day, and recreates himself by spending the intervals in thoughtless diversion, gradually loses the ability to think for himself; just as a man who is always riding at last forgets how to walk. Such, however, is the case with many men of learning: they have read themselves stupid. For to read in every spare moment, and to read constantly, is more paralysing to the mind than constant manual work, which, at any rate, allows one to follow one’s own thoughts.
So do some of us ‘read ourselves stupid’? I’m inclined to think that we do. Most of us like to think that the more we read the brighter we get – more knowledgeable, more articulate and better in touch with ourselves – but in reality is this true? I’m beginning to think more and more that those who gorge on books (myself included) could actually be doing more harm than good. I already think most positively that we consume way too much media in the form of television, Internet and mainstream news, but are books not just another form of media too?
‘The more one reads the fewer are the traces left of what one has read’, Schopenhauer says, and I’m inclined to agree with him, simply because by reading as a chain smoker smokes, we are not giving ourselves the breathing space that we need in order to savour and contemplate. Better that we go slowly perhaps, taste every bite of a book so to speak, and feel the effect it has on us, rather than wolfing it down before moving on to the next ‘course’?
This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, at least since reading French philosopher and spiritual writer, Antonin-Gilbert Sertillanges (1863-1948), who says a similar thing in his book, The Intellectual Life:
The passion for reading which many pride themselves on as a precious intellectual quality, is in reality a defect; it differs in no wise from the other passions that monopolise the soul, keep it in a state of disturbance, set up in it uncertain currents and cross-currents, and exhaust its powers.
Lofty words from Sertillanges, but I’m beginning to think he’s right. It doesn’t take anyone of supreme intelligence to realise that a mind fed continually is not a mind working in its best state. If we don’t give our brains time to sort and analyse, how can we expect them to retain and understand?
So how to address this should I think it to be a problem, which I clearly do? Well the ultimate solution were I taking Schopenhauer and Sertillanges’ advice fully on board would be to limit myself to maybe only one or two books per month. But of course this would be counter productive of me in my role as a literary evangelist, and would make me look as though I don’t practise what I preach with regards to reading passionately. So I think what is called for is moderation, perhaps picking a week out of every month to dedicate SOLELY to one book and one book alone, so that I can give myself the space needed in order to contemplate a book on a deeper level, while giving my brain the time to fully absorb it.
Anyway, I’ve rambled on about this for long enough, and I will leave you in peace, but I URGE YOU WITH EVERY CELL IN MY BODY to go and read Schopenhauer’s essay On Reading and Books. I’ve only touched on two of his points here but there is so much more food for thought to be gathered. And please please please do share your own thoughts and feelings on this subject. Given that I’ve thrown almost 2,000 words into this must surely illustrate just how important this subject is to me.
This post forms part of an incidental and on-the-spur observational essay series entitled Robservations. In these I endeavour to mainly stick to the subject of reading and writing, but in the spirit of Michel de Montaigne, and with much reverence for him, my thoughts will often be random, wide-ranging and inward looking (much like me as a person then :)).