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Bookish Diversions: Your Ideal Place to Read
Discomfort, Charitable Reading, Difficult Books for Personal Growth, Big Ideas, to Ban or Not to Ban?
I have kids and a dog, so my dreams of a reading experience are limited to just being left alone for 10 minutes just about anywhere. And the thing is that when my children were small I kind of got used to reading in very uncomfortable situations, sitting on the bathroom floor while they were bathing or on a narrow wooden bench in some gymnasium waiting for a soccer game, so now I can’t be too comfortable anywhere because I’ll fall asleep. A hammock or a nice sofa? Forget about it. But a chair, just uncomfortable enough, on a balcony just above a very busy street would probably be my favorite. Other than that, I love to read in a room where my wife is also reading.
¶ Charitable vs. skeptical reading. Podcaster Zohar Atkins recently shared 10 rules for approaching Great Books. Rules 4, 5, and 6 form a little unit unto themselves about how to get the most from reading them—and I’d say all our reading.
Great Books are like mirrors: they return to you the kind of reading you grant to them. Skeptical readings produced skeptical results. Charitable readings produce charitable results.
Being suspicious of people and books protects against downside. But charitable readings of people and books offers nearly uncapped upside.
It is almost always better to read charitably, first, and suspiciously, second.
Taken together, these rules remind me of the line from Maximus the Confessor, shared earlier in my “5 Personal Rules for Reading Disagreeable Books”:
If someone reads this or any other book whatever not for the sake of spiritual profit but to hunt for phrases to reproach the author so that he might then set himself up in his own opinion as wiser than he, such a person will never receive any profit of any kind.
Uncharitable reading produces unprofitable results.
¶ Reading for stimulation.
There is a benefit to challenging yourself to read more difficult books: books that are rich in metaphor and symbolism, books with lyrical language you can lose yourself in, books with messages that challenge you, books that are complex and may require a second reading.
So writes Danika Ellis in a piece for Book Riot. Ellis mentions people largely reading for escape. And escape is a fine reason to read. But, of course, reading also possesses the power of personal growth and intellectual stimulation. Ellis describes the ease of reading YA novels but then switching to something more demanding.
I felt as if some part of my brain had just roused itself from hibernation, yawning and shaking off the dust. . . . The act of reading something that wasn’t immediately accessible, that requires the reader to interpret and engage with the text, was something I realized that I missed. It isn’t anything I thought to seek out, but I know now I need as part of my reading diet. . . . We can only grow as readers by stretching a little past what is comfortable.
A question for you: What’s a book that stretched you recently? Share that in comments below.
¶ Big ideas. Thanks to economist and fellow Substacker James Broughel, I found Peter Coy’s excellent essay about why economists should read sci-fi. “Economists ought to read more science fiction,” he says. “All that fun, futuristic stuff: phasers, lightsabers, replicants, intergalactic federations, extraterrestrial beings in hovercrafts.” Why? “One reason economists should read more science fiction is that sci-fi opens the mind to other ways the world could be.”
This is an important point about literature in general. Reading pushes the imagination in directions we wouldn’t think to go on our own. That can lead to highly productive trains of thought. By creating an imaginary world that pushes scarcity to extremes, for instance, an economist can imagine different possibilities for resources, incentives, and behaviors that might lead to insights about the existing world.
To read is to conduct a thought experiment. That’s its particular power. Novels allow us to try on different personalities and circumstances. History allows us to see how others have behaved and thought in different times and settings, shedding light on our own behavior, thought, time, and setting. Psychology, philosophy, theology, and other disciplines allow us to take human experience from other angles and vantage points.
Says Rafia Zakaria, “Books are compendiums of ideas and experiences, a comment on the world in which they exist, a template as to how a different one, for better or worse, may be imagined.” What’s your next thought experiment?
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¶ Next-gen reading. Writes Christopher Lloyd in the Wall Street Journal,
Learned old people, like my parents, drop off the conveyor belt every day, and babies get dropped on the belt at the beginning, and books are still the best vessels we have for pouring wisdom into their squishy brains.
¶ Banning disagreeable books? Given all the heat about banning books right now, it’s interesting to learn how books end up on school library shelves to begin with. Oklahoma journalist Jennifer Palmer went looking for answers and shares those here.
Whatever one thinks about the merits of pulling any particular book, it’s worth remembering one basic truth about any library large enough to serve more than one or two people: there will be something in there to offend everyone. And to one degree or another, that’s a good thing. At least it’s what we should expect from libraries.
It’s an inelegant comparison, but we all have foods we dislike and even disdain at the grocery store, some of which we might even believe is detrimental to people’s health. Still, we leave the Velveeta well enough alone instead of pleading with management to toss it in the bin out back.
And while I recognize the charged nature of some of the material in question, let me remind culture warriors that bans don’t even work: they actually drive sales and consumption (click here and scroll down for relevant item).
¶ One underutilized fashion option.
¶ Reading to expand.
What music is to the spirit, reading is to the mind.
—Steven Roger Fischer, The History of Reading
¶ And back to Backman:
If I don’t like a book it’s probably because of me, not because of the book. My children will tell you I have horrible taste in everything.
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