Friday, 1 March 2013

To Read Yourself Stupid*

It is possible to read too many books. Or perhaps it isn’t. But it is possible to be totally consumed by the books and lose sight of the world. And it is entirely possible to read yourself stupid*.

All the people who read a lot in my acquaintance are prisoners of what they read. I haven’t, unfortunately, seen anyone of them come up with a single original thought. (My friends who earn their living by creating original work naturally don’t fall in this category; also they rarely have time to read ‘a lot’.) It seems most of these book readers are looking at someone else to think and feel and describe what life is like to them. They are incapable of doing so on their own.

I am sure you too are acquainted with people of this disposition. The kind who when we talk about art will bring up John Berger’s book, as if to say that if you haven’t read Berger you are incapable of truly appreciating art, which is strange, especially given the fact that most art that Berger talks about in his book was considered great by people who didn’t need a book to tell them what art is or how one must look at it.

Such ‘avid book readers’ see books as an escape– it is worth asking the question ‘from what?’ Most will say it is from the insipid conversation of others around them. Which is most amusing given the fact that they themselves are incapable of conversing about anything other than what they’ve read in a book, written by someone else.

Don’t for a moment consider that I don’t want people to read books. Please, read often and read a lot. But don’t become a prisoner to what you read, moaning the end of a book as if it is the end of existence itself. And most importantly please don’t be limited by what you read. Absorb it, love it, re-read it but never for once replace it for your own thinking. For aren’t books simply repository of other people’s ideas that may help you think of some ideas of your own? So, read but more importantly do take a break from reading to do some thinking of your own.

After writing this I came upon an essay by Arthur Schopenhauer titled ‘On Books and Reading’. Here is an excerpt:

“When we read, another person thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental process. In learning to write, the pupil goes over with his pen what the teacher has outlined in pencil: so in reading; the greater part of the work of thought is already done for us. This is why it relieves us to take up a book after being occupied with our own thoughts. And in reading, the mind is, in fact, only the playground of another’s thoughts. So it comes about that if anyone spends almost the whole day in reading, and by way of relaxation devotes the intervals to some thoughtless pastime, he gradually loses the capacity for thinking; just as the man who always rides, at last forgets how to walk. This is the case with many learned persons: they have read themselves stupid*. For to occupy every spare moment in reading, and to do nothing but read, is even more paralyzing to the mind than constant manual labor, which at least allows those engaged in it to follow their own thoughts. A spring never free from the pressure of some foreign body at last loses its elasticity; and so does the mind if other people’s thoughts are constantly forced upon it. Just as you can ruin the stomach and impair the whole body by taking too much nourishment, so you can overfill and choke the mind by feeding it too much. The more you read, the fewer are the traces left by what you have read: the mind becomes like a tablet crossed over and over with writing. There is no time for ruminating, and in no other way can you assimilate what you have read. If you read on and on without setting your own thoughts to work, what you have read can not strike root, and is generally lost.” 


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