Sunday, August 15, 2010

In Praise of Serious Reading

The Style section of The Washington Post has a fascinating series of articles today which look at how certain books have influenced artists--and what a wide variety of artists! Sculptors and rappers, influenced by books. You'd expect other writers to be influenced by books, but I'm always delighted, and a little surprised, to realize that other types of artists are influenced by books too.

Nestled in between these articles is one by the Post's art critic, Blake Gopnik, who praises serious reading. He recounts an experience of being sick for two weeks last winter and taking medication that left him sleepless but sharp-witted. He settled in with some serious books, the kind that we almost never read once we leave college.

Here's the passage that almost moved me to tears: "We all lead such insanely busy lives, and do so much multitasking, that there's no way we can take in really complex or important new thoughts. Most of us are stuck with whatever big ideas we studied in college. Even in the fields we make a living in, we're more likely to rely on what we learned at school, or pick up pell-mell on the job, than on new reading in depth. How many lawyers with cases to argue and clients to bill can catch up with the latest big ideas on law, or with the big ideas of Plato or Aquinas that they missed out on years ago?"

I've been feeling that my lack of ability to concentrate long enough to read serious books was some sort of moral failing on my part. This idea that maybe it's normal (not good, not ideal, mind you, just normal) made me feel such relief. The idea that it's not just me who has trouble finding chunks of time necessary to tackle tougher books made me feel so much better about myself. For just one minute, my inner guidance counselor, the one who always tells me that I'm not living up to my full potential, for just one minute, that voice shut up.

Gopnik advocates taking serious books along on vacation, but I want some other way. I wonder if I could carve out an hour for serious reading several mornings a week. If I could read before I turned on the computer and got sucked into the time suck which is most areas of the Internet, what might I accomplish?

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