Read Every Day While You Can

Images, sounds, videos, virtual reality and the many means by which we can alter our state of mind may compete for our time and attention, writes Frank H. Wu, but the pages of a good book give -- and demand from -- us much more.

July 12, 2018
 
 
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When you are sick, and you are informed that you are likely to remain so, you take solace however you can. I have decided that I must read, in order that I might write. That is how I intend to cope with my condition.

I probably would be dismissed as a scold if I said we, even those of us in academe, do not read enough. So allow me to pin the criticism on myself: I do not read enough. Now that any of us, with the internet access we assume to constitute a prerequisite for civilized life, can publish ourselves with unprecedented ability to reach a mass audience, any character who fancies himself one declares he is a writer. Yet I realized long ago, and I remind myself constantly, that a writer is only as good as he is a reader, too.

I aspire to write a page every day. Thus I try to read at least two, ideally even three, orders of magnitude more than that: 10 or 100 pages of text per 24 hours that have elapsed. Otherwise, my own content is as vain as it is ignorant.

The word competes. But it has been bested. Images, sounds, videos, virtual reality and the many means by which we can alter our state of mind are too entertaining. They are beguiling because they are shiny, loud and fast -- neither needing nor benefiting from our own exertions. Yet literacy enables more than expression. It equips us for analysis. Reading precedes writing, and, as an act, the former necessarily takes priority over the latter. To read is to prepare to write, as by jotting notes in the margin, a preliminary draft of a potential critique.

Reading is social. It represents a falling away from the oral tradition. The concept of the “literal” is abused, but it would be appropriate in this instance. We no longer believe that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, but each individual advances through stages. Reading literally was once reciting. We start as thinkers by reading aloud, parent to child side by side, teacher to students seated in a circle. The activity holds us rapt.

Even as we progress to read by ourselves, silently, reading is a relationship with an author. It gives us the infinite. Writing risks solipsism. We withhold our praise from writing by committee, no matter how distinguished the members. Although the reader cannot but refer to a writer, the writer may enjoy no reader. Even the most peerless writer continues a conversation. They cannot fail to communicate. If they wish to disagree, they must be understood as doing so.

The truth is I read ceaselessly. I belong to a category of people whom I thought constituted all of humanity, until I became aware that a part of the population considers our conduct to be disgusting -- which I, in turn, regard as a bizarre reaction. I read while seated in the bathroom. It is quiet, peaceful and solitary, one of the very few spaces I occupy that is private and free of distraction.

Yet if I were honest, I also should confess that I am not reading as I ought to be reading. I am careless though purposeful, as my eyes pass over correspondence, memoranda, legal statutes and judicial opinions, student papers and official reports, and all manner of documents that, if I had a choice, I would not peruse at all. I am looking at these materials, scanning and skimming, processing them with a minimal comprehension and less interest, as displayed on a screen. Much of it would waste the paper if printed.

What is worse, I acquire books as if possession were the same as mastery. I have thousands of them, a respectable collection of titles classics and contemporary, fiction and non-, canonical and heretical. I have leafed through them; there are no volumes with uncut pages, as could still be found at the estate sale of any bona fide bibliophile. When I have time, I rationalized to myself as I made the purchase from the secondhand shop, this is how I will devote myself. Like much else, I had it backward, for it is my newfound consciousness of the lack of time that compels me.

That is why I have resolved to read again. I was recently diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, rare and serious. According to reputable sources, pemphigus vulgaris was more often than not fatal back in the day -- and in the course of less than two years. I am covered in sores. The blisters come on so acutely I can feel them form. In antiquity, and still now in some cultures, these would be symbolic of sin -- stigmata. The specialist treating me, however, assures me that with modern medicine, the ailment no longer so surely kills. I could lose my skin, succumb to secondary infection or have such horrific abscesses and pustules as to unable to eat or drink, but more plausible is a shortened lifespan. The salutary effect of the health scare is to motivate me, no less for the cliché of it. You focus on what matters. There is much to learn. Reading is as close to a cure as I can conceive.

I am not alone. A reader never is. The skeptic Montaigne, credited with creating the genre of the essay, was inspired by his kidney stones, accepting the pain, like death, as integral to life itself -- the deposits were an inheritance from his father, who had suffered the same, with terminal consequences. The son’s retirement from French politics to his lavishly appointed library in 1571 was enabled by family fortune made in the wine trade with salt herring on the side, which allowed him to take up a subject that proved infinitely interesting: himself.

He was at the moment of decease still revising his discourses, which set a standard for us tyros even now. Three editions came out during his existence, another posthumously. The subject of his own demise had been an idée fixe. He had hoped that the obsession would free him of foreboding. Much of his prose is dedicated to his constitution and bodily function, such as his friend’s impotence, in an era of remedies like purging and bloodletting. Recovering from a terrible horseback riding accident, he preferred penning prose to taking physic. His journal details how he passed each kidney stone, with its dimensions. I have set myself to the happy task of reading Montaigne in order to write like him. He is appealing, intelligent but not “intellectual,” and a writer who is addressing his reader as directly as possible.

If I read every day, then I will write every day. If I write every day, then I must read every day. These projects are one and the same. They are indivisible from life.

Bio

Frank H. Wu is a Distinguished Professor at the University of California, Hastings, a stand-alone institution affiliated with the University of California system, where he formerly served as chancellor and dean.

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