On the value in reading widely.
It's a truism that novels allow readers to inhabit the lives of others, and all literature is a perpetual discovery that brings people closer while moving the horizon further away. Our reading reveals that the map is always larger than previously believed. Where once there were monsters, we discover beings that share the essentials of what it is to be human, we break bread with other tribes and converse with those who, on other days and in other places, would be the enemy. This commonplace is usually prodded back into life in service of defending the act of reading against obsolescence. There is, however, a partner in crime to non-reading as an abuse of literature, and it is reading unwisely or, put another way, reading narrowly.
If not reading is to lose view of the “other” or undervalue different modes of being and ways of thinking, then to read narrowly is to overvalue our own priorities. In the first, we fail to see alternatives, and in the second, we deny their value, reasserting the self as if it is all that should be written about, the only view worth writing from. As long as we congratulate ourselves for having encountered, for instance, the tribesmen of Haggard’s Africa, the parochial reader might unironically wonder what more there could be to know of those lands and their people. Once we understand that the outsider-writing-as-insider inherently lacks much that the first-person perspective offers, we begin reading more widely and more deeply.
Elsewhere, I've written about the poverty in reading the Bible through too narrow a lens and ignoring other ways of reading it. I’d like now to turn the widening gaze to the rest of literature, to the books loved and those neglected, the writers whose voices have resounded through the canon and those whose words have not been heard. Perhaps the map is best expanded by first losing the path set out by others long ago – others who may have had different kinds of journeys in mind, different destinations to reach. Alberto Manguel once wrote, “Our reading, much like our sexuality, is multifaceted and fluid,” optimistically employing the declarative is. Whether or not our reading actually is as varied as all that, it certainly could be and should be.
“[P]oetry is the universal possession of mankind, revealing itself everywhere and at all times in hundreds and hundreds of men. ... I therefore like to look about me in foreign nations, and advise everyone to do the same.”
“One day, I was sitting in my study surrounded by many books of different kinds,” Christine de Pizan writes in her 15th Century novel, The Book of the City of Ladies (one of six titles by a woman in the one hundred ‘Great Ideas’ books from Penguin). “It has long been my habit to engage in the pursuit of knowledge.” From this beginning, Pizan launches an ironic riposte to medieval misogyny and to the dangers of a narrow pursuit after truth. She begins by reading a widely praised text by Matheolus, which comes to her commended as a book “written in praise of women”. She discovers instead that it contains no more than the usual slander against her sex as contained in so many other highly recommended works of literature, poetry, and philosophy. It's in wondering how so many writers get away with such lies that a depressing idea sinks into her thoughts: it seems so “unlikely that so many learned men ... could possibly have lied on so many different occasions” that there must be validity to their criticisms. The sheer number of such vitriolic voices in her library is taken as a testament to the truth of their ideas.
This leads on to a sinner’s lament in which she prays forgiveness for the heresy this necessitates – that women are imperfect, meaning God made a mistake. Eventually, she is visited by the apparitions of three crowned and majestic ladies, representing Reason, Rectitude, and Justice, who endeavour to correct her misinformed thinking. They insist that no good idea can be accepted as such without first subjecting it to critical analysis. “Have you forgotten,” Lady Reason asks Pizan, “that it is in the furnace that gold is refined, increasing in value the more it is beaten and fashioned into different shapes?”
As in Pizan's case, our libraries – cultivated as sources of authority – can, if left unchecked, become authoritarian. In our efforts to seek out voices and ideas that challenge our thinking, we can unconsciously prioritise a particular kind of challenge and end up building not a critique against our intellectual inclinations but a reinforcement of a new dogma. We see this today in the ideological extremes on the internet's forums and social media, flogging their reactionary views as revolutionary. The world, for these angry demagogues, is divided neatly into two bulking categories: the mainstream (variously: liberal, anti-man, anti-white, and communist; or regressive, sexist, anti-black and capitalistic) and the alternative (whatever reductive ideology they're preaching).
More worrying is the recent, politically-unaffiliated rejection of all mainstream narratives – be it climate change, vaccines, or the war in Ukraine – in favour of a sort of knee-jerk contrarianism. This reflexive, un-self-reflective worldview is preserved through the self-congratulatory belief that because you are reading and accepting content that contradicts prevailing popular wisdom, you are being sceptical. This abuse of scepticism (which, in reality, advocates a cautious suspension of credulity until evidence and reason permit belief) results in a stagnating conflation of contrary to society’s ideas with contrary to bad ideas. This is also how insular forms of religion self-perpetuate, in the mistaken belief that escaping the chains of modern, mainstream ideology is necessarily the same as being free. In fact, this is simply a set of “mind-forged manacles” that the prisoner is blind to.
Strictures of this kind are difficult to see and shake off because they bear a superficial resemblance to contrarianism, which seems antithetical (though it isn't necessarily) to conformism. It is too easy to congratulate oneself on an extensive collection of titles that reject one orthodoxy and fail to see that we have simply put together a bookcase that exalts another orthodoxy. In our desire to amass a library that reflects our current values, the curtains can be closed on windows through which we might have glimpsed other places where they do things differently.
“So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea.”
~ Roald Dahl, Matilda
There is an irony about the above quote, hidden by my selective cutting of the full paragraph from Dahl’s novel: it's preceded by a description of how the precocious protagonist is transported “into new worlds” and introduced to “amazing people who lived amazing lives” by writers who are outsiders to those people and places. India through Kipling and Africa with Hemingway. Nothing unusual about this, but that is precisely the problem. If my reader here is one of those so made that they cannot detect what is lost from things described from without, I’d recommend listening to a friend describe you to a third person, then reflect on how much of who you really are is absent from their well-intentioned though necessarily impoverished account.
In recent decades, we have seen attempts to counter historical prejudices towards certain views and voices. Publishers are increasingly make room for marginalised writers, from women (roughly half the global population and yet treated as if theirs are the works of minority interest) to those in the working class (about whom many books are written, yet by whom so few are published). The literary canon itself is examined as a product of the west and thus a container for western thinking only; this doesn't invalidate the books it gave us, but we could gain so more by opening it up to new voices, many of which did not fit the parameters set by that original canon. This is a model our personal libraries can learn from. Constant vigilance must be held against the apathy encouraged by the pleasant feeling of confirming one’s own worldview.
Incidentally, this might also mean reading familiar works with a different mindset. I won’t spend time here elaborating on this point, as my essay on reading the Bible sets out in detail what I could not do justice to here in a paragraph, except to borrow from that same essay to act as a summa:
Books are at least as large as Walt Whitman – they “contain multitudes”. Or to borrow from the anonymous author of John’s gospel, “the world itself could not contain the books that should be written”. Infinite potential books each with infinite potential. The greatest books contain these multitudinous multitudes, some of their layers only discovered with changes in culture, adapting to radically new needs and interpretations. ... The literary terrain opened up by a curious, critical mindset is a “land of milk and honey” for those who seek paradox and nuance as catalysts for deep understanding.
We tread familiar paths through our books until the route is so worn into the text that it becomes harder and harder to deviate from. It requires a conscious effort to explore alternative journeys made by other readers into the same book and to blaze fresh trails, following even when we uncover difficult challenges to the certainty that, based on our own narrow reading, we know everything worth knowing.
I'm not only making a case for the weltliteratur of Goethe, I'm also recommending that we seek out whatever might be alien, be it political views or social perspectives, so that its humanity might be discovered – as Roman playwright Terence proclaimed through the character Chremes, “Nothing human is alien to me.” Sacred scriptures deserve a place in the best libraries of any atheist (and vice-versa), as do right-wing apologetics for liberal bibliophiles (and vice-versa), and criticisms of heroes for their followers. Our libraries should be forges in which new ideas are subjected to the heat of disagreement to form new shapes in our thinking. As Lady Reason reminds Christine de Pizan, it is “the very finest things which are the subject of the most intense discussion”.
• David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks (2014)
• Alberto Manguel, ‘Meanwhile, in Another Part of the Forest’ in Into the Looking Glass Wood (2000)
• Johann Goethe, quoted in Conversations With Goethe, by Johann Eckermann (1836)
• Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies (1405) [Penguin Great Ideas (2005)]
• Roald Dahl, Matilda (1988)
• Edward Said, Orientalism (1978)
• Terence, The Self-Tormentor (163 BCE)