On reading

I was reading Thoreau last night. It was his essay on reading. He thought reading was important, but he also thought that quality reading was more important still. Homer, Plato, Aristotle, that kind of reading. He was criticizing what he saw as “trash” (my word, not his) reading, which includes popular novels and related kinds of reading that he considered a time sink that did nothing to enlighten the hungry mind. Although I understand what he was trying to say (“Read smart stuff and you will be enlightened.”), I am not entirely sure he was completely right. The popular novel has a lot to offer if you know how to choose. Now many popular novels are bad because they have nothing new to offer; they either re-plow old ground or that imitate good novels badly. There are also many kinds of writing, i.e., poetry, essays, plays, letters, travelogues, reviews, opinions, short stories, and novellas, which touch on a multitude of interesting topics in a variety of ways. Autobiography, a notoriously fictional genre, is so utterly problematic that it cannot help but be extremely fascinating. If you limit your reading to Classical literature you will miss a lot about what is going on around you. You won’t read Thoreau, whose short essay on civil disobedience is one of the most important non-fiction works of the nineteenth century. You would also miss, The Scarlet Letter (Hawthorne), the short stories and poetry of Poe, Moby Dick (Melville), The Red Badge of Courage (Crane) or The Awakening (Chopin). If you are reading something, and you don’t like it, set it aside and find something else, but don’t not read something because it’s too contemporary. I would amend Thoreau’s work by saying this: blow up your TV, throw away the radio, move to the country, and renew your library card. Reading always helps the mind grow, learn, contemplate, escape, rebuild, revitalize, renovate brain space. Perhaps this is why the digital age has not yet displaced the book, a centuries old technology that just keeps going, and going, and going…