Wednesday, October 17, 2018

'A Chance of Becoming a Bit Smarter'

“Reading happens to be my hobby, too, along with peristalsis and respiration.”

When completing an application, one is sometimes asked to name his hobbies. The question always stumps me. I don’t collect stamps or go bowling. Walking the dog hardly counts. My default mode, as we bloggers like to call it, is reading. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to quietly savor the pleasures of an empty mind, in preparation for senility and death, but I’d rather be reading. The declaration quoted above is from Joseph Epstein’s “The Bookish Life,” an essay in the November issue of First Things.

I’ve never felt competitive about reading, and don’t care what or how much others read. Perhaps that makes reading the ultimate in selfish hobbies. Only love, hate and some friendships are more intimate. Call it self-rewarding codependence: Writers and readers complete each other’s existence. Epstein writes:

“What is the true point of a bookish life? Note I write ‘point,’ not ‘goal.’ The bookish life can have no goal: It is all means and no end. The point, I should say, is not to become immensely knowledgeable or clever, and certainly not to become learned.”

Rather, it is “to become more wise, not more learned or more eloquent,” Epstein explains, citing Montaigne’s “Of Books.” That’s an old-fashioned notion, giggle fodder for sophisticates, but true nevertheless. For some readers, wisdom is the elusive, unlikely byproduct of their hobby. Remarkable how a single human act – reading -- can accommodate such varied aspirations as titillation, time-killing and wisdom. Not for the first time, Epstein reads my mind:

“Reading may not be the same as conversation, but reading the right books, the best books, puts us in the company of men and women more intelligent than ourselves. Only by keeping company with those smarter than ourselves, in books or in persons, do we have a chance of becoming a bit smarter.”

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