A.C. Grayling on why Read

October 9, 2016

Why Read

by A.C. Grayling

How many a man dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book–THOREAU

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A library is like a hive storing honey, a part of the best, sweetest and most nourishing exudate of human experience–A.C. Grayling

It seems that some doctors prescribe books instead of medicines to patients suffering from depression, stress and anxiety. The patients are referred  to a bibliotherapist–yes, bibliotherapist–who gives patients reading lists suited to their conditions. The treatment’s inspiration was the observation by librarians  that borrowers are apt to say, on returning a book, that it did them good by making them or by distracting  them from their troubles.

There are almost too many things to say about something about this amazing fact. Cynics will ask,What sort of pass are we in that people need a doctor’s prescription to prompt them to read? When did we forget that reading is, for a thousand reasons, one  of the chief resources of life! Will doctors turn to prescribing dinner for the hungry and sleep for the tired as the next step in the medicalization of human existence, or as a response to the supine inability to think and act for themselves?

There is a tincture of justice in these exclamations, but it is not appropriately directed at doctors. It should be directed at the failure of our culture to show people what rich deposits of pleasure and usefulness, and what expansion of horizons, are to be found in reading. An education in reading includes guidance–very easy to give; it takes five minutes (much less if you say, ‘Ask a librarian’, which is excellent advice)–on how to find any required book or a kind of book. And just a little experience as a reader grants access to the great country where one flies as an eagle over the history, comedy, tragedy and variety of human experience, at every point garnering much, if reading is attentive, from the abundance on offer.

The key is ‘attentive’. The best thing any education can bequeath is habits of reflection and questioning. Reading can be a passive affair, an entertainment leaving  no impression on the mind beyond a pleasant present distraction. Many books are skillfully written to demand no more, and there is nothing wrong with that But for anything more, reading has to be an activity , not a passivity. It is hard to define what makes  good books good, because good books come in so many different kinds, but one thing common to most of them is that  they make readers think and feel, elevating or disturbing them, and making them see the world differently as a result. In short, they elicit the activity in active reading. “We find little in a book but what we put there”, Joseph Joubert said. “But in great books, the mind finds room to put many things.”

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Rodin’s Thinker @ Columbia University, New York

Reading does not automatically people wiser or better. When it has that effect  it is because readers have the work themselves, quarrying the materials from  their response to the printed page (or today the e-page). But apart from practical experience of life, which is everyone’s chief tutor,scarcely anything compares with books as the mine where that quarrying can begin. To read is to enter other points of view; it is to be an invisible observer of circumstances which might never be realised in one’s own life; it is to meet people and situations exceeding in kind and number the possibilities open to individual experience. As a result, reading not only promotes self-understanding, it equips one with insights into needs, interests and desires that one might never share but which motivates others, in this way enabling one to understand, and tolerate, an even to sympathize  with, other people’s concerns. As an extension of how this informs one’s behavior towards others; it is also  the basis for civil community and the brotherhood of man.

I keep a photograph on my desk of the Philosophical Library in Strahof Monastery in Prague. Taken from the upper gallery, it captures the tranquil beauty of that deep room, filled with light from the clerestory windows in the right-hand wall.The photograph shows one long bar of sunshine  lying across a tier of book-shelves, illuminating  the richness of the leather bindings ranked there. Below, on the ground floor, three desks are disposed, among an ingenious reading wheel any scholar would envy.

This scene is wonderfully expressive to do with books, and the reading of books, with study and thought, with books as the distillations of time and man’s endeavors–even of the world itself, brought into reflective equilibrium and clothed in quietness and retreat. If, off to one side, there were a closet with a bed in it and wherewithal to make tea, one would not mind being locked in there, and the key thrown away.

A cynic might proclaim this beautiful and evocative library a mere dead mortuary of dead books, a past curiosity for dull-eyed tourists to glance at, a selling point for postcards that now represent its only product. But I think it is a work of art, and represents something opposed to the uneasy, fickle, failing norm of most human life and its compromises.

In the Library, The University of Cambodia

A library is like a hive storing honey, a part of the best, sweetest and most nourishing exudate of human experience. A commentator on Virgil’s Gerogics Book IV, which tells of honey-bees and lost love, remarked that only four things withstand time–gold, sunlight, amber and honey. Some archeologists digging in Greece once came across an ancient amphora filled to the brim with honey 2000 years old. They took a little each day to spread on their bread at breakfast. After a time they noticed that at the bottom of the amphora. When they looked, they found that it was the body of an infant.

It is an extraordinarily touching thought that the mourning parents of this child, so long ago, buried it in honey to preserve it forever. The action of great wealth and great love.

Note: This essay is from A.C. Grayling’s book, The Meaning 0f Things–Applying Philosophy to Life ( London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2001). pp. 178-181. I recommend this book because, to quote the publisher’s note, it is “a wonderfully stimulating book and an invaluable guide to what is truly  important in living life whether  facing success, failure, passion, intolerance, love, loss or any other of life’s profound experiences”– Professor Din Merican, The University of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

10 thoughts on “A.C. Grayling on why Read

  1. Reading maketh a Man (and woman too if I may add)–Francis Bacon. UMNO characters do not read books, except the thoughts and writings of PAS leader Hadi Awang and the fatwas and lectures of Tok Cik’s Iman Harussani Zakaria, the Chief Mufti of the erudite Sultan Nazrin Shah’s Perak. That is why we have buffoons like Jamal Ikan Bakar Yunos, Ali Tunjuk Jubor Tinju and Rany Colonel Chelup Kulup and others.–Din Merican

  2. Reading for the sake of reading …..by the time we reach half of our lifetime, without gathering any kind of knowledge , that which we look for …….not only maketh the Man puerile but also ‘ sterile ‘ at that age ?

    For sake of learning, that should be the objective . So here I would quote St Augustine’s sarcasm or satire , which kept me thinking for my whole lifetime :

    ” The whole world is a ‘ book ‘ . ……for those who have not traveled reads only the first page ……”

    Mere reading can be awfully tiresome , and for those sitting for Exams can be fearsome ? Looks like there’s no short-cuts in life…..

  3. The present Gen-X/Y or impulse Generation seldom read.

    Perhaps it’s counter-impulsive? They prefer quick satisfaction of aural and visual scenarios and stimulus – instead of digesting ideas, reasoning and thinking. Being Literate is not the same as being Educated.

    Perhaps, it’s the state of education – where rote learning becomes the norm, and where conformity breeds contempt to incongruity?

    I prefer Novels. Any dissensions?

  4. Quote:- “Looks like there’s no short-cuts in life…..”

    That depends on who you ask?

    There are some people who believe that you keep viewing videos after death as we see the ancestral-worshipping Chinese burning paper video tapes for the dead. But I’ve yet to see anyone burning books or Playboy magazines.

    The human race got to where it is because some of the members read. Perhaps Allah had a more profound purpose when the Angel Gabriel ordered Prophet Muhammad to “Recite!” It would probably be better if He had given a copy of the Quran all nicely written out and delivered to the Prophet by the Angel Gabriel who then ordered the Prophet to “Read!”

  5. I was in the UC library again. A 22 year student asked me about how to read effectively and remember things. I said read don’t words, read sentences, have a good dictionary, use the index, read the Preface, Introduction and Conclusion, and read everyday even it means just a couple of pages. Make notes. After all, reading (I mean active reading) is habit forming. Painful at first but fun for a lifetime.

    Conrad, CLF, LaMoy, Veritas et.al any additional advice for the young man?–Din Merican

  6. Ask the young man to read a paragraph or chapter and then write down in his own words what he understood. That will help the young man in not just reading but also comprehension and also allow him to express himself.

  7. Dean.Din, one of the many regrets I had, beyond the fact that I am not reading enough as suggested, is that I had not been able to grok the Quran, nor even begin the simplest understanding of the Arabic language. This thought began when taking classes in the spider man school with that Thinker statue. I just wanted to suggest reading should go beyond the kind that gets one the skillset to make a living. In that spiderman school classroom, I get to read a chapter of two of the Quran together with the first two books of the OT. Even in that spiderman school, those reading came with a lot of opposition in the campus. I read the Bible from beginning to the end out of my own curiosity to escape my anger towards the system as I was going through my STPM. I was angry. I kid you not in that I had the thought if I ever had a gun in front of Tun M, or DSAI, I would have no hesitation in using it . To my surprise, I didn’t feel the same for DSAI nor Tun M these days.
    Part of me felt, those naughty escapism actually helped.

    Perhaps, at my age, I should have no excuse of not trying to read up a little bit more on the Quran to better appreciate the plight of many others in this world. I would definitely welcome any suggestions on how to go about reading those Quranic text. Pak Abnizar, any suggestions for me, perhaps a simple reference to see if there is any order that you suggest me reading the text? Thanks!

    Perhaps, I should learn to read more that makes me giggle also, as I had to handle my anxiety/depression. Objectively speaking, serious reading of the world is indeed quite depressing.

  8. In Joineriana, Samuel Paterson says, “Books, like friends, should be few and well chosen.” But, I am a book junkie. I read anything and everything I can lay my hand on. Some books I tread like friends, most other mere acquaintances, the rest simply hello and goodbye . In his Essay on Studies, Francis Bacon says it best: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”

    When I read a good book, I am not merely reading the printed words, I am having a conversation and exchanging ideas with the author.

    Reading develops our mind. Understanding the written words is one way the mind grows in its ability. Reading develops our language and communication skills. It also helps us learn to be attentive and to listen. Yes, the author is the boss. If you want to finish reading the book you better be attentive and listen. Lack of listening skills can result in major misunderstandings which can lead to disasters, big or small, in one’s life.

    Reading discover new things and new ideas. Books, magazines, and even the internet are great learning tools which require the ability to read and understand what is read. Those who read can educate themselves in any area of life they are interested in. We live in an age where we overflow with information, and reading is the main way to take advantage of it.

    Reading develops the creative side of people. It develops our imagination. With reading, we can go anywhere in the world…or even out of it! We can be anything, the possibilities are endless. Non-readers never experience these joys to the same extent.

    Reading develops a good self image. Non-readers or poor readers often have low opinions of themselves and their abilities. They feel as if the world is against them because they have poor communication skills. They feel isolated and behavior problems can surface.

    Well, did I miss anything? But I better stop here. My wife is getting impatient waiting for me to drive her to the supermarket.

    Thanks for this. A book lover is an educated person. –Din Merican

  9. It all depends if your reading challenges your perceptions. Makes you think. Makes you question preconceived ideas. Exposes just a little bit of what makes you tick.

    For me reading is about discovery not always about some big idea but rather those little details that get lost in every day living. Reading has always been about slowing down not speeding up.

    But then again I have found that people who read a lot can be myopic , inward looking and lose touch with the world around them, preferring the solitude of not engaging.

    I dunno’, I was raised around books, around people who found value in reading but more importantly talking about what they read. Solitude gave way to engagement.

    Like Fran Lebowitz :

    Think before you speak. Read before you think.”

    I am reading Karin Littau’s Theories of Reading–Books,Bodies and Bibliomania. . Heaving reading since I am not a literary theorist.But I will persist.

    In her book, Karin argues that we need to look beyond the words on the page and give due regard to the technical innovations in the physical format of the book. Only then, she adds,is it possible to understand fully how media technology has changed our experience of reading and why media history presents a challenge to our conceptions of what reading is.

    I would rather think as I read.Otherwise, reading is not active reading and I am lost. –Din Merican

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