A reader asks why I so often link reading and pleasure. He admits that for him reading is often a chore, an occasional obligation that sometimes can’t be avoided. He speculates that the origin of his distaste for books is rooted in family and education. His parents didn’t read, books were largely absent from his childhood home, and reading was a form of punishment in school. My history is similar but I chose another response to indifference and occasional contempt. I’m contrary by nature, a personality bent I accepted when very young. My parents smoke? I’ve never once put a cigarette in my mouth. They can but don’t read? I’ll spend the rest of my life with books.
So, why is reading a pleasure? I’ve never in any organized fashion analyzed it. It’s an unexpectedly complex question because the pleasures of reading are many. I like narrative, the charms of pure story. I love language artfully deployed. There’s no better way to meet an interesting sensibility than to read a good book, one that lends life an interesting texture. Readers aren’t “better people” than non-readers but they often (not always) make better company. In my experience, non-readers tend to be dull and mulish. Their worlds are small. I know a middle-aged man who hasn’t read a book since high school, if then. His idea of pleasure is watching Marvel super-hero movies, and they supply the only cultural references I’ve heard him make. The give and take of conversation is beyond him. His company is tedious, and part of me pities him.
The passage quoted at the top is from “The Bookish Life,” an essay Joseph Epstein published last year in First Things. He’s not proselytizing, thank God, for books or reading. That doesn’t work. Rather, he’s celebrating them. He even revels in the pleasures of slow reading. Like me, he never enrolled in the Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics program:
“In the risky generalization department, slow readers tend to be better readers—more careful, more critical, more thoughtful. I myself rarely read more than twenty-five or thirty pages of a serious book in a single sitting. Reading a novel by Thomas Mann, a short story by Chekhov, a historical work by Theodor Mommsen, essays by Max Beerbohm, why would I wish to rush through them? Savoring them seems more sensible. After all, you never know when you will pass this way again.”
Savoring, by definition, implies a pleasure-driven activity. How good to find pleasure in an activity that carries no risk apart from asthenopia. Epstein writes:
“[T]he next life, which, I like to think, will surely provide a well-stocked library. If it doesn’t, I’m not sure I want any part of it. Hell of course will have a library, but one stocked exclusively with science fiction, six-hundred-odd page novels by men whose first name is Jonathan, and books extolling the 1960s.”
[As an old-fashioned man of letters, Epstein has made a career rooted in the love of books. The theme runs through many of his essays and reviews. See “The Pleasures of Reading,” collected in Partial Payments: Essays on Writers and Their Lives (1989).]