Why read?

I’m coming up on a milestone. Sometime in the next few weeks I will have read every book I own.[1]

That might not seem impressive to those of you who assembled your libraries in the ordinary way – by buying books you were interested in reading, reading them, then sticking them on the shelf when you were done. Which is how I assembled most of my own collection.

But of the 750 or so volumes on my shelves, maybe a fifth were passed down to me by my father – most when I was a teenager and he purged his possessions in preparation for a big cross-country move, the rest upon his death five years ago. My “dad books”.

These weren’t books I wanted to read, exactly. They’re books I thought, at the time I received them, I ought someday to read. So I kept them around through numerous downsizings. Each time I moved, or each time my shelves got too crowded for new purchases to be squeezed in, I would dispose of some fraction of my collection – books I’d read once and doubted I’d ever want to read again, books I realized I would probably never read at all. But most of the dad books I retained, for a variety of reasons, sentimentality being one – the knowledge that these had been some of my father’s favourite (or at any rate longest-held) possessions:

  • His copy of East of Eden, its cover more tape than paper, which he plucked off some drugstore magazine rack a half century ago.
  • His copy of David Niven’s Hollywood memoir Bring On The Empty Horses which, when I finally got around to cracking it open, split in half like a year-old pita. (I inexpertly glued and taped the halves back together.)
  • His copy of Jean Bowie Shor’s travel adventure After You Marco Polo, an oft-repaired library discard with the title handwritten in black marker on the spine, so embarrassingly ugly that I Photoshopped and printed a new dustcover for it.

Through the years, I picked away at this unasked-for cache of old books. Some of them, against expectations, I wound up loving – I’ve come around to an equivocal admiration for my dad’s favourite author, John Steinbeck. Others did nothing for me, and after giving them a good-faith try I moved them with reluctance to my discard pile. But it was a project of decades. Taking priority were all the newly-bought books that I was actually excited to read.

A couple years ago I decided – as much for space-saving as cost-saving reasons – to scale back my book purchases until I’d read all the ones I already owned. And at last I began to make rapid progress through my dad books. Soon the unread were few enough that I could tag them all on the spine with coloured Post-It placemarkers. Now, scanning my shelves, I count just four remaining Post-Its.

I already know which one I’m saving for last: Robert A. Heinlein’s final novel, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, with its title borrowed from Tennyson’s “Ulysses”:

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.


What does it mean to have “read” a book? To select an example at random, from my desk I can see John Cheever’s Falconer, which I read seven or eight years ago. If you’d asked me shortly afterward, I could have supplied a sketchy summary of its plot, stammered for a minute or two about its “themes”, and maybe hazarded some half-formed speculations about its place in the canon of 20th century American literature.

Seven or eight years later, what do I remember about Falconer? Practically nothing.

Did I enjoy Falconer? I can’t remember. Apparently I found it interesting enough to keep around, with the idea I might want to crack it open again in another decade or two. Did I learn anything from it? Maybe it helped me form some hazy ideas about the American penal system, or about upper-middle-class attitudes toward homosexuality in the 1970s. Maybe I picked up a couple bits of trivia, or quirks of English usage, that helped me better understand books and news stories I’ve read subsequently.

Most likely, Falconer passed through me without leaving a trace. As will To Sail Beyond the Sunset.

If so, why read at all? Just to kill time? But if it was only time-killing, why did I bother to advance beyond Mad Magazine and Encyclopedia Brown? Why did I torment myself with Chaucer and Plutarch and Pynchon? Am I a happier or better person for it?


I recall in my early twenties being so taken with a certain line of William of Baskerville, the proto-scientist hero of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, that I quoted it to friends:

We are dwarfs, but dwarfs who stand on the shoulders of […] giants, and small though we are, we sometimes manage to see farther on the horizon than they.

I was chastened to learn, some years later, that this is a paraphrase of a comment by Isaac Newton so well-known that it appears on the British two-pound coin; and it’s only now, via Wikipedia, that I learn Newton was himself paraphrasing earlier thinkers.

Perhaps one advantage of being widely-read – if there is any – is that it enables you to recognize a wider range of references.

  • When Lord Peter Wimsey, prodding a slow-witted witness to recollect various details of a crime scene that he was unaware of having noticed, compares the witness to Socrates’s slave;
  • When Emma Bovary, basking in an uncharacteristic moment of maternal feeling, imagines herself as Sachette in Notre Dame de Paris;
  • When the unexpressed love of Tom Jones for Sophia Western is described as eating him alive from inside, “like the famous Spartan theft”;

…I understood what the author was getting at.

But this advantage only goes so far. First off, it’s quite possible to read and enjoy Whose Body?, or Madame Bovary, or Tom Jones, without picking up every allusion. What’s more, these days if an unfamiliar name or phrase leaves you puzzled, you can reach for the phone on your bedside table and resolve the mystery with a quick internet search.

(This is in fact what I had to do when I came across Flaubert’s reference to “Sachette” – an epithet which doesn’t appear in my translation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, where Sister Gudule is instead referred to familiarly as “Sacky”.)

Midway through Tom Jones, Henry Fielding semi-facetiously apologizes for padding his novel with quotations (some translated, some not) from classical literature:

To fill up a work with these scraps may, indeed, be considered as a downright cheat on the learned world, who are by such means imposed upon to buy a second time in fragments and by retail what they have already in gross, if not in their memories, upon their shelves; and it is still more cruel upon the illiterate, who are drawn in to pay for what is of no manner of use to them.

He goes on to compare authors who sprinkle their stories with Latin and Greek to auctioneers who “confound and mix up their lots [so] that in order to purchase the commodity you want, you are obliged at the same time to purchase that which will do you no service.”

Though by Fielding’s standards I would be lumped among the illiterates, I don’t mind paying a little extra for the classical padding. My paperback Tom Jones was bought (by my dad) at a secondhand store for 25¢ – I can tell because it’s written in black marker on the cover – so the cost per unwanted quotation seems reasonable. A bigger obstacle to modern enjoyment of Tom Jones is its labyrinthine 18th century syntax. Luckily, after slogging through Dryden’s translation of Plutarch, Fielding’s windiness barely ruffles my hair.

Which is great – at age 41 I can read for pleasure books that at 21 I would only have finished out of a sense of duty. But this doesn’t answer the question I posed at the top of this essay. The purpose of reading cannot be merely to expand the range of texts one is capable of reading.


Via Richard Carroll’s blog Everything Is Oll Korrect I recently encountered C.S. Lewis’s comment that “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.” While Lewis (in his introduction to a translation of De Incarnatione by Saint Athanasius) was referring particularly to books of theology, his advice is applicable to readers of all faiths, or none:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.

(He later adds, “To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”)

All contemporary writers [Lewis continues] share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?” – lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H.G. Wells and Karl Barth.

A couple months back, Alan Jacobs posted on his blog a similar passage by the anthropologist Loren Eiseley, arguing that scientists should acquaint themselves with the history of scientific prejudice and closed-mindedness, because:

The man who learns how difficult it is to step outside the intellectual climate of his or any age has taken the first step on the road to emancipation, to world citizenship of a high order.

Lewis and Eiseley (and the bloggers approvingly quoting them) would seem to agree that by stepping outside the mainstream of present-day thought, by taking a longer, cooler perspective, we can, if not identify the unexamined assumptions that warp and maim our reasoning, at least recognize that those assumptions are probably present – in short, that by reading widely we can become humbler, more perceptive thinkers, and therefore better citizens and human beings.

I share this belief, but part of me fears it’s self-flattery. Those who’ve devoted a large part of their lives to reading – among whom I’ll include myself, though my activities in this vein have been laughably tiny beside Eiseley’s or Lewis’s – would like to believe their efforts have amounted to something.


In Bring On The Empty Horses, David Niven describes being enlisted, among other movie stars, to act as host during Soviet Premier Khrushchev’s 1959 goodwill visit to Hollywood. After dinner, the group visited a soundstage at 20th Century Fox where Shirley MacLaine was shooting a big dance number from Can-Can. Khrushchev watched silently as the dancers swirled their skirts and saucily exposed their frilly pantalettes. When filming was complete, the Premier was asked for his opinion of the proceedings. He replied – presumably through a translator, but I like to imagine him speaking with a thick Boris Badenov accent – “Deesgustink!”[2]

The story is amusing because, even by the standards of Hollywood under the Hays Code, Can-Can was hardly risqué. Khrushchev’s reaction must have seemed to Niven’s contemporaries as absurdly old-fashioned as someone in 2017 declaring himself shocked by Elvis Presley’s hip-shaking.

Now imagine the response of, say, a twenty-four year old op-ed writer at Salon to some other amusing David Niven anecdotes:

At a banquet to celebrate his impending wedding, a huge serving dish is placed in front of James Stewart. The lid is lifted to reveal “a midget dressed as a baby”.


Socialite Dorothy di Frasso, separated from her Italian nobleman husband, takes a series of handsome young American men on glamourous trips to Europe, inspiring one wit to remark, “The best way to cross the Atlantic is on the Countess di Frasso.”


Errol Flynn drops by one afternoon and invites Niven to come take a gander at “the best-looking girls in L.A.” Thinking they’re off to see some showgirls, Niven hops in the car and is surprised when Flynn pulls up across from Hollywood High School just as classes are letting out. Watching the teenagers spill onto the sidewalk, Flynn lauds the charms of the “jail bait…San Quentin quail” until a cop leans in the window and tells the aging perverts to take a hike.[3]


Here’s a good reason to proceed cautiously along Loren Eiseley’s “road to emancipation”. Thanks to my acquaintance with mid-20th century British writers like Nancy Mitford – I refer you to the discussion of the “Lecherous Lecturer” here – I can project myself into the forgiving humour with which David Niven would have regarded his friend Errol Flynn’s pedophilic effusions. Our fictive Salon editorialist would not see such forgiveness as broad-minded, but as deluded, dangerous – deesgustink.

“Perhaps from my emancipated perspective,” I say, “I see the question more clearly than you.”

“If you can defend such monstrous behaviour,” says my progressive critic, “the only thing you’ve emancipated yourself from is common decency.”

“I’m not defending it. I’m just saying…”

…What am I saying? Reading Mitford and Austen and Thackeray seems not to have made me any quicker-witted. Tongue-tied, I give up the argument. Abandoned by their last defender, the films of Errol Flynn are tossed onto the ash-heap beside the Cosby Show DVDs and the Greatest Hits of Rolf Harris. I comfort myself that in a hundred or a thousand years, a less censorious people will excavate the ash-heap and wonder at the 21st century Puritans who were so quick to disclaim everything their parents and grandparents had created; the Salon editorialist is confident that our cultural successors will applaud her moral firmness while treating her as-yet-undiscovered moral failings with more lenity. The issue won’t be settled until long after we’re both dead, and it won’t really be settled then, because the generation that comes after the ash-heap-excavators will drop napalm on the excavation site and blame their parents for unleashing the evil juju buried therein.

My own experience is that taking the long view, rather than spurring me to exhibitions of enlightened world citizenship, just makes me too depressed to go outside.

Why read? I genuinely have no idea.


1. Let me clarify my opening statement. Sometime in the next couple weeks I will have “read” (in the minimal sense of having passed my eyes over every constituent word of) every novel and at least part of every anthology, omnibus, collection of stories, essays, poems, or plays, or non-fiction book I own.

Most of my books are novels, so the percentage of unread pages will be pretty small. Even counting my small shelf of reference books it should be under ten percent.

I’d wager I’ll get to most of the stories and essays eventually. But my shelves will always include a certain amount of dead weight. Will I ever read all 750-odd pages of the Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Milton? Probably not. One of these days I mean to take another crack at Paradise Lost and that’ll be it.

2. Niven’s book is not renowned for its perfect fealty to the facts. Here’s a more detailed account of Khrushchev’s 1959 Hollywood visit, and here’s a clip of the Premier having what looks to be a pretty good time watching the Can-Can dancers.

3. I should mention that in 1943 Errol Flynn was prosecuted for statutory rape – and acquitted. But he’s known to have had affairs with underage girls, including Beverly Aadland, who at age seventeen accompanied him on his fatal 1959 trip to Vancouver.


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Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area.

Michael is the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss and the creator of Garson Hampfield, Crossword Inker.

You can find many of Michael's videos on the Gallery page.

Garson Hampfield, Crossword Inker