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On Reading

I suppose it is because I am an introvert (which my wife disputes) that a good deal of the pleasure that I get on a daily basis comes from reading and listening to music. The pleasure of these pursuits is a very important part of my life.

Indeed, I felt so strongly about reading that I taught each one of my children to read before they entered school. The children’s author, Emile Buchwald, rightly points out, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.”

In a recent article in the Weekend Australian, Greg Sheridan wrote:

“And yet I believe profoundly that reading is an intellectually and spiritually superior activity to watching TV or film. Reading is close to meditation. If you are reading something complex and beautiful, something multi-layered and also something that is true, you are cultivating an inner life in a way that is beyond the passive business of watching film or television.”

It sounds as though he would have agreed with Groucho Marx who said, “I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set I go into another room and read!”

But I would disagree somewhat with Greg. Meditation allows us to cease thought, put it aside – whereas good writing allows someone else to subsume our thoughts – not entirely, because it still allows our judgments, ruminations about the subject matter, and so on. (Although the British historian and writer, Sir Arthur Helps once famously said, “Reading is sometimes an ingenious device for avoiding thought.”)

In that respect listening to music is closer to meditation because when we get absorbed in a great musical work we are only aware of the beauty of the sound and thought is suspended.

Nevertheless Sheridan has a point. Certainly to me reading the printed word provides pleasures that other media can’t provide. And the joys are many and varied. Sometimes you just become engrossed in a story and you experience vicariously the life and thoughts of someone else. Then you read something that stimulates your intellect and you put the book down for a while to process your own thinking that has been so stimulated. Sometimes you will be so stimulated emotionally that you experience a similar effect. More often than not you will be compelled to go back and read a passage again just for the sheer joy of it. As the Irish politician and author , Edmund Burke proclaimed, “Reading without reflecting is like eating without digesting.”

Again Sir Arthur Helps got his priorities right. “Wear the old coat and buy the new book.” I must confess, as those who know me will attest, to paying more attention to my library than my wardrobe!

Some writers have an extraordinary way with words, which I must say I greatly envy. They put a string of words in juxtaposition in ways that astound and surprise me but as a result can stimulate, educate or amuse the reader. And of course, as the Harvard experimental psychologist, Steven Pinker points out, our words and our language tell us a lot about human nature and how the brain works. His “The Stuff of Thought” is an entertaining but seriously provocative book.

Since commencing this essay I have become aware of the passing of Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens often infuriated me because even when I disagreed with him I still loved to read what he had to say because of the gorgeous use of language in his writings. He was courageous in defence of what he believed. When the Ayatollah Khomeini ordered a fatwa against Salman Rushdie after the publication of “The Satanic Verses” Hitchens protested vehemently in Rushdie’s defence and excoriated his fellow writers for not standing up to be counted in response to such injustice. He even harboured Rushdie for a period of time whilst he was in fear for his life. When a Danish newspaper published cartoons lampooning Mohammed some in the Muslim world threatened bloody retaliation. When the newspaper in fear of such retribution apologised, Hitchens wrote:

“It’s not enough that faith claims to be the solution to all problems, it is now demanded that such a preposterous claim be made immune from any inquiry, any critique and any ridicule.”

One of his most popular works was his rant against religion, “God is not Great.” Unfortunately in attacking religion he concentrated on the dogma of the literalists and the fundamentalists. Many believers I know would not expect to be absolved from inquiry, critique and even ridicule even if the Ayatollah and his ignorant followers did so.

His style was often acerbic and pointed. He railed against religion. “The gods that we’ve made are exactly the gods you’d expect to be made by a creature that’s about half a chromosome removed from being chimpanzee.” But unlike the fundamentalists he invited argument and criticism of his assertions and beliefs.

What is attractive about a writer like Hitchens is not how cutting he can be, and not only his masterful use of language but that he draws on a vast knowledge of history, literature and social science in his work. Still I wouldn’t want to get on his bad side. He was, for example, a great critic of the monarchy, and in particular, the heir to the British throne, Prince Charles, who he titled in one essay “The Prince of Piffle”. Here is a small quote from the essay:

“At a point in the not too distant future, the stout heart of Queen Elizabeth II will cease to beat. At that precise moment her firstborn son will become head of state, head of the armed forces, and head of the Church of England. In strict constitutional terms, this ought not to matter much. The English monarchy, as has been said, reigns but does not rule. From the aesthetic point of view it will matter a bit, because the prospect of a morose bat-eared and chinless man, prematurely aged, and with the most abysmal taste in royal consorts, is a distinctly lowering one.”

Well that should set the monarchists off – a bit personal and perhaps unkind, but that’s the way he did his stuff and expected no quarter in return!

I suppose at some stage he must have read one of my little books. It is implied in his statement that, “Everyone has a book in them – but for most it is better left there!”

And in his own inimitable way I loved his brutal frankness. After his cancer diagnosis he referred to this last year as his year of “living dyingly.”

But I apologise – I have been diverted from my main theme.

Sometimes I get great pleasure from surprise in writing. My memory is a little hazy now, but many years ago I read (I think it was in T H White’s “A Once and Future King”) about someone who “Got on to his favourite hobby horse and rode off in all directions at once.” What an evocative statement that is – such an apt description of people we all know – but I would never have thought to portray them in this way!

It is reminiscent of the aphorisms of Ambrose Bierce or Oscar Wilde. Bierce, in his “Devil’s Dictionary” turned many conventional ideas on their head, Being someone who is probably over fond of a drink, I resonated with this definition:

“An abstainer is a weak person that yields to the temptation of denying himself a pleasure.”

As for Oscar Wilde his quotations are numerous, witty and perceptive.

Somewhat reminiscent of Hitchens he wrote:

“I think that God in creating Man somewhat overestimated his ability.”

And many will no doubt resonate with his cynical version of the “Golden Rule”:

“Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.”

But in literature these are mere bagatelles that startle and amuse. It is when we immerse ourselves in the literary equivalent of symphonies and concerti that we are most overwhelmed by the power of the word. I am indebted here to my early education where I studied Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Charles Dickens, H G Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, Alexandre Dumas and others. The ability to weave an intriguing plot, populate it with well-developed characters and then to hold it all together in a majestic array of language is what makes a book (of fiction at least).

Edward P Morgan the American journalist and writer wrote this tribute to books:

“A book is the only place where you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face. It is one of the few haven’s remaining where a man’s mind can get both provocation and privacy.”

But many of my favourite books are not works of fiction. The English philosopher, scientist and writer, Francis Bacon opined that, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few are to be chewed and digested.”

I guess I have always sought out those that needed to be “chewed and digested.”

Surprisingly many of the non-fiction books that provided stimulation in my younger years came from unlikely sources. For reasons that now seem implausible to me, I did a second degree (after electrical engineering) in economics. As a young idealistic liberal, I was taken by the works of John Kenneth Galbraith, particularly his two early books, “The Affluent Society” and “The New Industrial State.” But Galbraith was more than an economist. He was, indeed, much more renowned as a polemicist than as an interpreter of economic theory; but he was also a diplomat, a journalist, a novelist, a political campaigner, an inveterate television pundit and a globe-trotting conference speaker – deploying craggy features (he was 6ft 8in), a rich basso profundo and a sardonic wit to powerful effect. And he could write. I vastly enjoyed some of his latter writing that had little to do with economics.

My interest in history was probably first stimulated by reading H G Wells, “A Short History of the World.” But there is a profound body or work helping us to understand history, science and the progress of humanity. Bill Bryson’s book, “A History of Almost Everything” was entertaining and insightful. And the good Dr Phil would not allow me to complete such an essay as this without mentioning the seminal “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Thomas S Kuhn. Or who could forget Jacob Bronowski’s “The Ascent of Man”. And certainly someone who shaped my early thinking was Arthur Koestler.

Perhaps those who have read my blogs might notice that I have been tremendously influenced by those who have written on spirituality, psychology, history, and politics among other things.

But it seems pointless for me to go on enumerating the hundreds of titles that I have read over the years. But if I were to return to Greg Sheridan’s thesis I can remember far more books than films or TV programmes that have impacted on the way I think.

It is evident that as human beings, we reflect our worldview. My worldview has been greatly influenced by what I have read. I have enjoyed the process and there is little that could give me more enjoyment than reading. So, in many ways I am what I have read! I just hope at this stage of life, having been shaped by the imperative of what I have read, that I have read enough about what really matters!

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  1. 5 Comment(s)

  2.   By Father Robin on Dec 18, 2011 | Reply

    “A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
    A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou
    Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
    Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!”

    The Rubayyat of Omar Khayyam.

    Merry Christmas.

  3.   By Father Robin on Dec 18, 2011 | Reply

    Mind you, trying to read a book of verses with a soprano belting it out in your left ear can be a little testing.

  4.   By Father Robin on Dec 21, 2011 | Reply

    Fortunately, due to industrial deafness, it doesn’t raise a major problem.

    Training in Selective Hearing helps too.

  5.   By Father Robin on Dec 21, 2011 | Reply

    I conduct courses in Selective Hearing.

    They are free of charge, but you need to shout.

  6.   By Father Robin on Dec 22, 2011 | Reply

    Semester One.

    “Sorry my dear, what was that?” (whilst reading Plotinus)

    Drives ’em nuts.

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