Notes About Reading
I have been married for 15-years and in all that time my wife has not read a single book. Not one. Not that I know of, anyway. It’s terrible, isn’t it? It’s a disgrace. She is a university graduate, and still… When I was in university I read about one hundred novels a year, in addition to what I had to read for my schoolwork - textbooks and limited circulation books that were kept on “reserve” in the Reserve Reading Room, never to be checked out of the college library. It came out to about a thousand pages of reading a week for four years of undergraduate and then two years of graduate school. After that, Teachers College was easy. It was so undemanding intellectually that actually reading a textbook was unnecessary and I had even more time to read novels. Since then the total number of books I read per year, or pages I read per week have declined a lot. I am married, I have children, and I work, so I am busy and tired all the time. But I still read every day. I always have a book that I am reading now, plus a back up for when I finish the current one. Reading is like breathing. I hate to imagine going without either. These days I am down to about thirty books a year. But it can dip even lower when I read a large classic. For example, I spent the first three months of 2007 reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I’m glad I finally read it, and I will probably never read it again. (I can proudly boast that I have read it when many other people - even people my own age - say “Huh?” because they have never even heard of it.) But it filled a space during which I could have read eight other popular fiction novels instead. The same occurred in years passed when I read classics like Les Miserables, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Anna Karenin.
Over the years I have met a remarkable amount of antipathy among people - not just from my wife - towards books. I come from an upper middle class family and spent my years steeped in schoolwork, university, and reading. When we were children my parents read bedtime stories to us, of course. Then on family holidays we all had books to occupy ourselves on vacation. That was my family, but the same was true of our friends, as well. It was the culture of the upper middle class. It was the culture of the families of professional people. (My father was a doctor, my mother a physiotherapist.) Or, so I spent my life believing, anyway. So it was a shock and more than a little annoying when I discovered as an adult that even those family and friends that constituted my formative childhood culture proved to be book-haters. Culture depends on the printed word and civil society is a delicate veneer covering our truer natures. So I expected a different appreciation of books and understanding of them from “educated” people. Instead, as an adult (who loves to collect books) the most common view I have encountered on the topic of books is, “What good are they?” or “What use are they?” So in fact my wife is little different from most other people, including Canadians.
Even among the educated the commonest view holds books and reading to be necessary inconveniences endured for the purposes of graduating school. So most people never read Shakespeare after school, and certainly not for pure pleasure at any time. Nor do they read anything more than Best Seller list pop fiction. I read War and Peace, Les Miserables, The Count of Monte Cristo and, from now, The Brothers Karamasov just for pleasure, the pleasure of the art of literature and the philosophy of humanity that resides in literature. It’s not about utility as many seem to understand it. Or, rather, the pleasure of literature’s art and the investigation of the nature of humanity therein are the utility of it. As far as I am concerned it belies the myth of a “literate” society. Most people, even university graduates, feign a disinterest in books to mask their real hatred of them.