Aug 21 2009 10:23am

In related news, we are finite: reading priorities over time

Here’s what I’d like to see, either pointers to existing work on the subject or getting to watch someone with better, wider information than I have inventing it: discussion of making decisions about reading priorities that draws on the facts of human maturation in ways shaped by scholarship as well as personal impression.

I lack the sort of background I’d like to see applied to this. I can point at some obvious truths, like:

  • It’s good to cast your intellectual net widely when you’re young, and when you encounter concepts and topics new to you, before you form mental ruts.

  • It’s good to be aware of when your judgments are impaired by stress and crisis, and make decisions informed by the realities of impaired judgment to keep yourself out of avoidable trouble.

  • It’s good to recognize when you’re reading the same old stuff all over again and feel that you’re at liberty to stop that and move on, whether it’s a subject you know enough about now to reach some conclusions about or a viewpoint you know enough about to be clear in your own mind whether you’re accepting or rejecting it.

  • It’s good to be open to new thoughts, but also good to have some confidence in your own thoughts after a while, and to be aware that you can’t in any event know everything that might conceivably be known about anything.

But I don’t know how, or if, these might add up to something systematic in the light of psychology, physiology, and the like. Or, for that matter, theorizing from the life of the mind as such, in the realm of literature, philosophy, or what have you. Anyone know of such things and want to take pity on my ignorance?

[Photo taken by Flickr user Austin Evans, used under Creative Commons license.]

Bruce Baugh is thinking about this kind of thing as a change of pace from thinking about life in early 20th-century America and the pulp adventure possibilities in social misery.

Evan Leatherwood
1. ELeatherwood
Yes, I am always conscious that every page I read brings me one page closer to my last.

Borges, in his non-fiction essays (which are always brief, a gift to the finite reader) is obssessed with the problem of abundance, the charms of reading unique to each stage of life, and the simultaneous impossibility and imperative to read everything. None of his essays are explicity about this topic, but in a way, all of them are implicitly about it. Yes, Borges has much wisdom about this. And he was a lover of mysteries and science fiction.

C.S. Lewis in "An Experiment in Criticism" talks about the maturation of taste, the mellowing of wonder, what to read, and how to read it. Very accessible and clearly written book, free of academic jargon. And his SF credentials are unimpeachable.

The opening of "If on a winters night a traveler" by Calvino is a delightful joke answer to your questions.

I know TS Elliott, in some of his lectures (The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism? maybe?), said that school curricula kill off the natural development of taste. You'd have to hunt a while to find that passage, if I remember.

What a melancholy and fascinating post.
Ian Gazzotti
2. Atrus
Something else that, to me, is obvious truth: do not be afraid of re-reading too; getting back to an old book might be just as exciting as reading something completely new and different.
Evan Leatherwood
3. ELeatherwood
That said, my own philosophy is to follow my cravings to whatever book is at hand. I tried lists and systematic explorations for years, and finally discovered that my mind came alive only when I read according to its whims. If you rely on your intuition, it does all the exploring and connecting up for you -- but you have to be willing to listen to it, and that sometimes seems frivolous and sometimes overly serious.

Virginia Woolf's "The Common Reader" has some good advice too. Serious books, candid advice about how and why to approach them, or not.

And I agree with Atrus: re-reading is essential!
p l
4. p-l
I'm sure Jacques Barzun has written something about this, but I'm at a loss for a reference.

What's most important, I think, is to actually take some time to reflect on what you read. Cultivating that habit will, in the long run, channel your interests towards books that reward reflection.
Alejandro Melchor
5. Al-X
The first time I felt depressed about reading was when the meaning of "ars longa, vita brevis" sunk into my head as I began my first job at a bookstore, back in high school.

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