Unlike the ﬂat data of the internet, books are multidimensional; and they engage and nourish all our mental faculties—our whole selves. There are books that answer the basic impulse of curiosity; and for people of a certain temperament—or perhaps for all of us, if it isn’t stiﬂed—intellectual and imaginative curiosity can be as strong as libidinal desire. In various studies of such things, the urge to know has been shown to be deeply raveled with erotic energies, and following its direction and urgency leads to the best kind of reading. We may want to read a book about the latest discoveries in cosmology, or the latest studies of ant colonies, simply because such things are fascinating, and worth knowing; and because they reawaken our sense of wonder about the world. Or we may want to read a biography of a person we admire, or a history of a period which is of interest to us. Such books not only satisfy our desire for “objective” knowledge, but they give us a wider personal lens through which to view and understand the world, and our own location within it. They literally broaden our mental horizons and our perspective—and there is great enjoyment, as well as an intrinsic value, in that.
But it is imaginative literature—ﬁction, memoir, personal essays—which provides the fewest pragmatic answers to the question “why read,” and gives us the richest reasons. To make a rather sweeping proposition, imaginative literature is the art form most capable of encompassing all dimensions of human experience: the outer and the inner world, speciﬁc facts and the elusive textures of consciousness, the stories of individual selves and of the self within culture and society. Unlike factual texts which, at a pinch, can be summarized on Wikipedia, ﬁction and personal writing cannot be so condensed without losing something of their essence.
Reading of this kind cannot be done in a hurry. To enter a very good, or a great book (the latter are admittedly rare, but there are good reasons why we refer to them as classics), is to enter a world: the world created by the text, and the implicit world of the author’s voice, style, sensibility—indeed, the author’s soul and mind. This takes an initial stretching of the mind, a kind of going out of the imagination into the imaginative landscape of the book we hold in our hands. It is often a good idea to read the beginning of a book especially slowly and attentively; as in exploring a new house or place—or person—we need to make an initial eﬀort of orientation and of empathy. Eventually, if we are drawn in, we can have the immensely pleasurable experience of full absorption—a kind of simultaneous focusing of attention and losing our self-consciousness as we enter the imaginative world of the book.
The experience of absorption in a book is both very private, and universal. A book whose reputation has lasted has been, and will be, understood by many readers across various periods and languages; it speaks to something about the human situation that apparently transcends, or overarches, historical and cultural diﬀerences. But when we open a book we also enter a conversation between ourselves—a particular reader, with particular responses—and the text. Plunging into a novel or memoir and becoming absorbed in it calls for a certain receptivity, the willingness to “listen” attentively to the voice of the author and the minds of others. As we follow the plot of a book, or its logical and emotional argument, it is good to pause occasionally and enter into a dialogue with the voice we’re listening to—to check on what we’re thinking as we read, or whether an observation or an insight strikes us as true or insuﬃciently so.
Our literary heritage is so enormous, and the production of new books so constant, that if one wants to give examples of what literature has to oﬀer, one can only be very arbitrary. The writer who has been a lodestar for reﬂective readers for several centuries is Montaigne; his essays have been used as aids to introspection, and as stimulus to meditation on essential aspects of human experience. He was the ﬁrst to coin the term “essay” (“attempt”)—to describe what he was doing—and it is a form which perfectly suits his project, which was to observe himself and others without prejudice, and to ﬁnd out what he felt and thought. In a sense, he is the ﬁrst modern writer to attempt the individualist route to self-knowledge—that is, a method of investigation based not on religious precepts or prior philosophical ideas, but on close and uncompromisingly honest self-observation. Perhaps that is the secret of his continual appeal, despite the fact that his style is quite old-fashioned. If his writing retains its immediacy across the centuries, that is because in his essays he gives us the movements of his mind as it explores and circles around a subject, or around itself.
In a way, Montaigne was one of the ﬁrst psychologists, examining himself without preconceptions and without trying to arrive at any dogmatic conclusions. He knew that the human soul (what later came to be called the psyche) is full of “divers passions,” that we are not unitary in our moods or even our deeper inclinations. He understood that pain and loss are inevitable in human lives; and he believed that insight into those emotions can make them bearable. Above all, he believed in moderation. Even virtue, he thought, “becomes vicious, if we embrace it too stringently and with too violent a desire.” Drawing on the classical philosophers, and foreshadowing psychoanalysis, he intimated that the emotions needed to be mastered—but not stiﬂed or repressed. But he also valued his preferences and his pleasures, which he described without prior moralism or prejudice. He wanted, above all, to preserve his quirky individuality, and the particularity of his temperament and perceptions; and this makes him excellent company, interesting and surprising on every subject. One could do worse than spend some time with him—most of his essays can be read in less than an hour—and to remember the pleasures of self-observation, of sensing ourselves as speciﬁc personalities with individual predilections and temperament.
Montaigne is a central monument in the literature of self-observation, but since then, the literature of personal essay and memoir has grown large. Before the rise of formal depth-psychology, it was imaginative writing that gave us the richest examinations of human subjectivity. Freud acknowledged as much when he said that poets and writers were his true predecessors.
- MARLON JAMES: WHY I’M DONE TALKING ABOUT DIVERSITYOctober 20, 2016 by Marlon James
NOTES FROM THE RESISTANCE: A COLUMN ON LANGUAGE AND POWERDecember 9, 2016 by Summer Brennan
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