I spoke with a fourth-year student at the university where I work who has not entered the campus library since he was part of a tour group that passed through it early in his freshman year. He corresponds to no one’s image of a bookless dolt, and his indifference to most books and all “recreational” reading cannot be attributed to the usual culprits afflicting his generation – video games, television, internet – because he is largely indifferent to them. He is articulate and can talk about his discipline, computational mathematics, without baffling or boring the mathematically backward. He is charming, serious and drily funny, and interested in other people (not a quality shared by all mathematicians and computer scientists). He just doesn’t read, and I’m puzzled but unable to condemn him. I’m left to speculate on the nature of his interior world.
The contrast with my own college experience is instructive. As a scholar I was spasmodic. If a class interested me, I was devoted; if not, less so. But I was in the library every day, seated in a carrel, the desk stacked with prizes from the shelves. This was my first experience of a university library, and I promptly turned into a gourmand. I read stacks of literary magazines and film journals. I read for the first time Flann O’Brien, Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé, Broch’s The Death of Virgil, Dryden’s prose, Robert Burton, the autobiographies of Gibbon and Darwin, Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy and Ford Madox Ford. This will always remain a minority practice, I understand. I’ve fumbled my way through most of my life, but I’m grateful for the welcome I received in the library. Francisco de Quevedo in one of his “Moral Poems, “From La Torre” (Selected Poetry of Francisco de Quevedo: A Bilingual Edition, trans. Christopher Johnson, 2009), describes his own retreat into the library:
“Withdrawn to this solitary place,
With a few but learned books,
I live conversing with the dead,
listening to them with my eyes.”
But to call it a retreat is unfair and not quite accurate. Books, too, are part of the world, not a rejection of it. The two are not mutually exclusive. That’s why I wonder about the bookless student. Who does he listen to with his eyes? As Guy Davenport’s writes in “On Reading” (The Hunter Gracchus, 1996): “For the real use of imaginative reading is precisely to suspend one’s mind in the workings of another sensibility, quite literally to give oneself over to Henry James or Conrad or Ausonius, to Yuri Olyesha, Bashō, and Plutarch.”