How Ought We to Read?

And by that question, How Ought We to Read? I wonder both what we owe to ourselves and to authors. Carolyn Moynihan of wrote, last week,

[I] made a start on a small classic, One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich (catching up with Solzhenitsyn is an ongoing project of mine) but had to put it aside after a few pages as it seemed almost indecent to read about people being ground to powder in the gulags while sitting on the beach.

I had a similar experience with the same book some years ago. It was a mild summer’s day in South Dakota where I lived, by myself, on the third floor. I’d pulled my favorite lounge chair onto the deck and sat with my feet propped, basking in the sun. Add to that a book slim enough to comfortably hold in one hand, while the other grasped a chilled glass of something or other–tea, or sangria–and it was perfect.

But given the subject matter of the book, it seemed, to quote Ms Moynihan, almost indecent.

Here I was from one hand drinking in the sufferings of the prisoners of Soviet camps, yet here I was from the other hand drinking in a beverage iconic of luxury.

Now, it’s unquestionable that a variety of factors of how we read affect how we digest what we are reading or have read. Music, other ambient noise, lighting, physical comfort, the weather, all these add to the atmosphere of our reading experience. Because reading is not a purely mental exercise. Consider the importance of a soundtrack in a film to how you receive the other messages the film is sending you–the images and dialog. For instance, in Ken Burn’s documentary The Civil War, there is a point at which Paul Roebling very movingly reads Sullivan Ballou’s last letter to his wife before his death in battle. During the reading the song Ashokan Farewell plays in the background as a sort of beautiful dirge. (Listen/view here.) Imagine, now, that Ashokan Farewell was replaced with Joplin’s The Entertainer

The same sort of effect is had on us as we read. I read almost all of The Hunchback of Notre Dame lying on my couch or in bed, but the last several chapters I read late at night by a single candle’s light. When I used to drive a delivery truck, I read Frederick Douglass’ autobiography and Great Expectations in a drafty, bitterly cold receiving area of the plant between runs. Those experiences naturally affected how the story resonated with me.

But at the same time these experiences are subjective. I don’t think I lost anything personally by reading Willa Cather’s O Pioneers on the train between Manhattan and Brooklyn. I don’t think I necessarily got more out of my readings of Dom Scupoli’s The Spiritual Combat in a quiet church than I did in a noisy Jiffy Lube. In his memoir Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis wrote,

It is important to acquire early in life the power of reading sense wherever you happen to be. I first read Tamburlaine while traveling from Larne to Belfast in a thunderstorm, and first read Browning’s Paracelsus by a candle which went out and had to be relit whenever a big battery fired in a pit below me, which I think it did every four minutes all that night.

The environmental circumstances in which we read can aid us; but if we cannot transcend a  dependence on an optimal reading “soundtrack” they can definitely hinder us as well. We may begin to coddle ourselves (or make excuses not to read, if the circumstances aren’t quite right), becoming self-indulgent. But then, many of us tend to think of reading as a self-indulgence anyhow; even if we subscribe to loftier ideals of self-betterment and the formation of the person, we are still talking about our self-betterment and the formation of our persons.

What of the writer?

There’s a Nathaniel Hawthorne quote that comes up on my WordPress dashboard periodically:

Easy reading is damn hard writing.

Whatever we read has been sweated over, fretted over, cursed over. There is a certain part of me that feels an obligation to the author to treat his or her work with due respect. That is, to physically adjust my reading habits to pay homage to the work.* Thus my mild guilt while reading Solzhenitsyn on the deck.

Yet ultimately I come to wonder about not what I owe the author but what the author wanted. The author, I imagine, wanted less for readers to read his or her work “perfectly” than for the reader to read his or her work.

At the end of the day I hardly think Solzhenitsyn would begrudge me the sunshine if I took his story to be one reason to thank God for the warmth.

*I would like to emphasize this is an ideal, not often a reality. I am, for example, a bathroom reader. I’ll read anything from Calvin & Hobbes to Hobbes or Calvin on the john. I read wherever, whenever. But still, let the discussion continue.
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