Reading at whim will make you stumble across books you really like, which will lead you to more books, which will lead to yet more.
Inevitably, many people are claiming that the lockdown is a great opportunity to read more. Yet, many are also saying that they’re reading far less. This is partly to do with understandable anxieties that cloud the mind. It could also be because of picking up the wrong kind of book.
In an 1886 issue of the Pall Mall Gazette, Oscar Wilde declared that books could conveniently be divided into three classes. Books to read, books to re-read, and books not to read at all.
In the first category, he places works such as Cicero’s Letters and the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini. In the second, he mentions books by Plato and Keats. As he elegantly puts it: “in the sphere of poetry, the masters not the minstrels; in the sphere of philosophy, the seers not the savants.”
Finally, in the not-to-be-read class are “all argumentative books and all books that try to prove anything”. Here belong the works of John Stuart Mill, “except the essay on Liberty”, and all of Voltaire’s plays “without any exception”.
Wilde says that telling people what to read is either useless or harmful because “the appreciation of literature is a question of temperament, not of teaching”. In typical Wildean fashion, he claims that to tell people what not to read is a very different matter.
Universities ought to take it up as a subject, as it is “eminently needed in this age of ours, an age that reads so much that it has no time to admire, and writes so much that it has no time to think.” Not much seems to have changed.
Italo Calvino takes the classification of books to a parodic extreme in the memorable If on a Winter's Night a Traveller. The fictional reader of his novel visits a bookstore and forces his way past a thicket of Books You Haven’t Read, “which were frowning at you.” He then encounters Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered.
The hapless browser soon comes across other categories: Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, and Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too.
The odyssey continues, with Books You’ve Been Planning To Read For Ages, and Books You Want To Own So They’ll Be Handy Just In Case. Quite wonderfully, there are also Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified.
Read whatever you like
When reading the above, it struck me that my bookshelf contains examples of all these types. I should have listened to Wilde when he proclaimed: “It is only an auctioneer who should admire all schools of art.”
Given such overabundance, it’s a wonder that any reading gets done at all. It’s best to follow the advice that’s often been repeated: read whatever you like. If that means setting aside the books that will “teach life lessons”, or the ones reviewers have praised for “luminous prose”, or even the ones claiming to offer“an insight into the human condition”, then so be it.
In his The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, literature professor Alan Jacobs says that he declines to give reading recommendations. Instead, he exhorts people to read at whim. “For heaven’s sake,” he continues, “don’t turn reading into the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens.”
The books are waiting, Jacobs says, and reading at whim will lead you to the good ones as well as the bad ones. With time, you’ll acquire the ability to know the difference. Reading at whim will make you stumble across books you really like, which will lead you to more books, which will lead to yet more.
Another tip he offers is to read books that your favourite authors were formed by. “The pursuit of the works that shaped a loved writer’s mind can be fascinating in itself,” he writes. I recall visiting Jenny Offill’s website after reading her sparkling Dept. of Speculation and discovering other titles that, she said, had influenced her writing in one way or another. Some, like Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, I had come across before; others, such as Joe Brainard’s I Remember, I happily devoured.
It also helps, especially at a time like this, to abandon the notion of “guilty pleasures” when it comes to reading. If it provides pleasure, it’s sufficient. Whether it’s the murder mystery that’s been dismissed as trashy, or returning to a loved children’s series, or the frothy romance, or whatever else takes your fancy. Let the nuanced prose wait its turn. Let the iconoclastic structure stand in line.
Zadie Smith once remarked in an academic context that “it depresses me, how embarrassed some people seem to be about novels, how much they want them to be something else.” As a reader, there’s no need to be embarrassed. The way to read more is to read whatever makes you happy.
Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.