Insights on Being Well-Read

What is the true point of a bookish life? Note I write “point,” not “goal.” The bookish life can have no goal: It is all means and no end. The point, I should say, is not to become immensely knowledgeable or clever, and certainly not to become learned. Montaigne, who more than five centuries ago established the modern essay, grasped the point when he wrote, “I may be a man of fairly wide reading, but I retain nothing.” Retention of everything one reads, along with being mentally impossible, would only crowd and ultimately cramp one’s mind. “I would very much love to grasp things with a complete understanding,” Montaigne wrote, “but I cannot bring myself to pay the high cost of doing so. . . . From books all I seek is to give myself pleasure by an honorable pastime; or if I do study, I seek only that branch of learning which deals with knowing myself and which teaches me how to live and die well.” What Montaigne sought in his reading, as does anyone who has thought at all about it, is “to become more wise, not more learned or more eloquent.” As I put it elsewhere some years ago, I read for the pleasures of style and in the hope of “laughter, exaltation, insight, enhanced consciousness,” and, like Montaigne, on lucky days perhaps to pick up a touch of wisdom along the way.

The act of reading—office memos, newspaper articles on trade and monetary policy, and bureaucratic bumpf apart—should if possible never be separable from pleasure. Twenty or so years ago there was a vogue for speed-reading. (“I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes,” Woody Allen quipped. “It involves Russia.”) But why, one wonders, would you wish to speed up an activity that gives pleasure? Speed-reading? I’d as soon take a course in speed-eating or speed-lovemaking. Yet the notion of speed generally hovers over the act of reading. “A real page-turner,” people say of certain novels or biographies. I prefer to read books that are page-stoppers, that cause me to stop and contemplate a striking idea, an elegant phrase, an admirably constructed sentence. A serious reader reads with a pencil in hand, to sideline, underline, make a note.


Folksonomies: reading productivity leisure

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/science/social science/philosophy (0.332216)

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Writing (0.905558): dbpedia_resource
Woody Allen (0.898578): dbpedia_resource
Reading (0.839124): dbpedia_resource
Essay (0.832481): dbpedia_resource
Knowledge (0.782998): dbpedia_resource
The Point (0.711810): dbpedia_resource
Monetary policy (0.707562): dbpedia_resource

 The Bookish Life
Periodicals>Journal Article:  Epstein, Joseph (November 2018), The Bookish Life, First Things, Retrieved on 2018-10-31
  • Source Material []
  • Folksonomies: reading pleasure