“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours,” the character of Alan Bennett says in the award winning play, The History Boys.
It is a vivid and moving description of the connection between human beings and literature – or indeed, art in general. And this connection has been mused upon by countless great artists throughout the ages: “Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her extraordinary essay collection, The Faraway Nearby. Meanwhile, Herman Hesse argued that it is possible, when reading, to discover such a powerful imaginative connection to the words on the page that “we really no longer read what is printed on the paper but swim in a stream of impulses and inspirations that reach us from what we are reading.”
This transcendent relationship between human beings and literature has been described by Umberto Eco as almost being driven by some biological impulse as yet undescribed by science. Yet in order to reach the most rewarding of reading experiences – as described by Bennett, Solnit, Hesse et al; there is often a role that we, as readers, must play. Indeed, it is not enough to simply open a book and scan the page – we must do so with effort, dedication; even skill.
The art of reading
This is something that W.H. Auden – one of the most celebrated and successful poets of the 20th century – discusses in his collection of essays, The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays.
One of the most striking observations in this fascinating collection is Auden’s assertion that reading should be regarded as an art in its own right:
“The interests of a writer and the interests of his readers are never the same and if, on occasion, they happen to coincide, this is a lucky accident.
To read is to translate, for no two persons’ experiences are the same. A bad reader is like a bad translator: he interprets literally when he ought to paraphrase and paraphrases when he ought to interpret literally. In learning to read well, scholarship, valuable as it is, is less important than instinct; some great scholars have been poor translators.”
An intriguing part of Auden’s central argument is that becoming a “good” reader ultimately hinges on our ability to discern for ourselves what we find to be enjoyable. Reading and literature therefore become as much a part of our life-long process of self-discovery as anything else as we traverse the inevitable change that takes place over the course of our lifetimes. Just as David Foster Wallace surmises that we as human beings “get to choose what is and isn’t important […] get to decide what we worship”, Auden argues that it is critical that we do not read something because we think we “should” read it, or because we are told to – but because we want to:
“Good taste is much more a matter of discrimination than of exclusion, and when good taste feels compelled to exclude, it is with regret, not with pleasure.
Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our study to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity. Few of us can learn this without making mistakes, without trying to become a little more of a universal man than we are permitted to be. It is during this period that a writer can most easily be led astray by another writer or by some ideology When someone between twenty and forty says, apropos of a work of art, “I know what I like,” he is really saying “I have no taste of my own but accept the taste of my cultural milieu,” because between twenty and forty, the surest sign that a man has genuine taste of his own is that he is uncertain of it. After forty, if we have not lost our authentic selves altogether, pleasure can again become what it was when we were children, the proper guide to what we should read.”
Decide what books you worship
This ability to choose for ourselves what we read – the ability to say clearly that we enjoy certain books and writers but not others, regardless of what others may think – is vital, Auden suggests, not just to reading but also to writing. Because a problem many writers frequently encounter is a feeling that they should be writing for a specific group of readers:
The challenges of being a reader in many ways parallel those of being a writer, particularly when it comes to these tyrannical shoulds — nowhere more so than in the perennially asked, perennially answered with ire question of why a writer writes and for whom. Auden offers the most beautiful answer I have yet encountered, at once utterly grounding and utterly elevating:
“A writer … is always being asked by people who should know better: “Whom do you write for?” The question is, of course, a silly one, but I can give it a silly answer. Occasionally I come across a book which I feel has been written especially for me and for me only. Like a jealous lover, I don’t want anybody else to hear of it. To have a million such readers, unaware of each other’s existence, to be read with passion and never talked about, is the daydream, surely, of every author.”
From the philosophical to the practical
And what of the practical art of reading? While Auden provides fascinating musings on how we decide what we read, and our mental approach to literature, other great writers have examined the art and process of reading in even further detail.
Vladimir Nabokov, for example, writes in his Lectures on Literature that, when it comes to literature, “the mind, the brain, the top of the tingling spine, is the only instrument one should use when reading a book.”
He further adds that reading is not a singular act but part of a long-term cycle or process:
“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.”
Perhaps some of the finest advice on the subject, however, comes from legendary writer Virginia Woolf, who addressed the issue in an essay rather appropriately titled ‘How to read a book’, found in her essay collection The Second Common Reader.
“The only advice … that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.”
Perhaps this is the central trick, therefore: in order to be a good reader, it is critical that we are open to all the possibilities in the world.
It seems as though the same advice could be applied to life more generally – as this sort of openness is surely a critical part of what it takes to be a good person.