Friday, April 1, 2011

On the Reading of Books

When I was a wide-eyed teenager trying to make sense of the world and envisioning an exciting future for myself, I saw before my mind’s eye a few life choices: drugs, male prostitution, alcohol, or books.  I rejected the first option because I could not afford it.  I dispensed with the second option, for I was just too darn shy and withdrawn to be successful in that line of work.  The third option, alcoholism, was clearly out because I believe that the drinking of alcoholic beverages is a sin.  Books, however, offered me a chance to broaden my horizons and escape reality.  I think of Machiavelli’s words in a letter to a friend when he describes his time alone among books in his study: “There I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reasons for their actions; and they in their humanity reply to me.  And for the space of four hours I feel no boredom, I dismiss every affliction, I no longer fear poverty nor do I tremble at the thought of death.”  Indeed, reading a good book is like drinking a fine wine, except that instead of tasting a fermented liquid, you’re looking at a bunch of words on a page.  And apart from the fact that reading involves a degree of concentration whereas the drinking of wine is a simple act of consumption, and if you ignore the fact that reading and drinking are technically quite distinct acts that don’t seem to have anything in common, there is, I  think, a similarity.  (Part of me now wishes I hadn’t brought up the whole wine-book analogy; besides, I’ve never tasted wine before, what with the consumption of alcohol of any kind being a sin and all.)

As I get older and career and family responsibilities keep me busy, I must be selective these days when it comes to reading; the book I choose has to be a good one.  I recently found a paperback romance novel entitled Torrid Tangle in Tallahassee at a used bookstore.  What attracted me was the cover: a muscle-bound Italian-looking youth with long, flaxen hair appears to be ravishing a blonde woman who's wearing nothing but a black negligee and wanton eyes.  In the background is a mansion with a Lamborghini parked in the large driveway.  People who meet me, I should add, instantly recognize me for a romantic.  Anyway, I figured that such a book would give me some wonderful lessons for life.  When the leggy Becky had rejected Scott, the handsome young MBA groomed by her father to take over the corporation, for the swarthy Fabio-like Jacko, who rode motorcyles and sported tight leather pants and seemed attentive to her deepest needs, I knew I could gain some important insights about the human condition.  As much as I love books, though, there's a few thingsand only a fewthat you can't learn from a book, like living life or whatever.

One of my favorite thinkers, René Descartes, arrived at the same conclusion when he discussed the “book of the world” in his Discourse on Method.  “I entirely abandoned the study of letters,” he writes.  “I spent the rest of my youth traveling, seeing courts and armies, associating with people of different temperaments and circumstances, gathering various experiences, testing myself.”  Now that I think more upon it, books are a waste of time.  Moreover, they’re deceiving.  Why is it that you’ll be more apt to accept a viewpoint as the Gospel truth if it’s in print than otherwise?  And who exactly are these ubiquitous authors?  They're pathetic creatures who feel a need to share their thoughts and use readers for their therapy.  And we poor saps keep showing up at Barnes & Noble, Borders or the library like starved dogs returning to their vomit.  Or maybe these book writers are just arrogant bastards who like to inform benighted readers, from their putative font of wisdom, of what life is all about.  I was at the coffeehouse the other day reading a couple of books.  Two guys are walking out and one of them stares at me before turning to his buddy.  “George, check that dude out!  Who reads books anymore?”  I wanted to stab him in the face for his rudeness with the Swiss Army knife attached to my keychain, but he had a point.  Book reading is so passé.  For all these reasons, I've decided to host my first book burning shindig this coming Saturday.  I told my friends to bring beer, brats, and books (marshmallows too!).