On books and readers

And benefitting from reading

There are those who never do any reading unless at gunpoint or on the eve of an exam, and as little as possible at that. This way of life has become so widespread that where it was once considered embarrassing to own up to it, people now take pride in staying clear of books under the pretext of being ‘practical’ (as opposed to ‘bookish’). From university campuses – where diligent students are awarded the derogatory epithet of ‘theta’ – to life in general, book readers are dismissed as impractical fools. The impression given is that bookworms are not good at anything except reading, with the happy conclusion that reading is no good. Of course, this is nothing other than intellectual lethargy masquerading as wisdom. We all know people with this attitude, and they need not detain us any longer.

Reading is without doubt an excellent habit, but a qualification is in order: it is very easy to go overboard. Becoming a compulsive reader is not necessarily an improvement on not reading at all. With such readers it often becomes a matter of ticking off one title after the other on a never-ending reading list. This is when what ought to be a process becomes the goal itself – clearly a mistake unless it is purely recreational reading.

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Too much of reading can easily confuse a man, especially when there is no active participation from the reader. The mind needs time to assess what it reads; and if it is not allowed ample time to digest what is ceaselessly fed to it, it happily gives up the task of critical analysis. As soon as one book is finished there is the next one waiting to be read. There is no closing of the book at intervals to think about what has just been read, what it means, and whether it makes any sense. There are no flashes of inspiration, no sparks of creativity triggered. It becomes a mechanical process, adding with each new title to the hotchpotch of random ideas already there in the mind. Some of the most confused men on the planet are not those who are allergic to books; they are men who have read too much, too quickly without any sort of processing or coordination.

So how much reading is too much? And how much is enough? Like most things in life, the ideal must be somewhere in between the extremes. But where exactly? The proof of the pudding is in the eating, so this probably is not the right question to ask. For what is important is not how much one reads but what one does with whatever one reads.

Education is not the same thing as information. One could have a lot of information about something without knowing what it means or where it all fits in the grander scheme of things. It is very easy, for example, for a man to be informed of all sorts of events and titbits from history without having any idea about the philosophy of history. It is just another variant of mental laziness when the reader reads voraciously but does it with a passive mind – very much like one would watch blockbusters. It is hard work when the brain becomes an active participant, but it is precisely then that real benefit is obtained from reading, for then it is no longer one-way traffic but a creative process.

So how much reading is too much? And how much is enough? Like most things in life, the ideal must be somewhere in between the extremes. But where exactly? The proof of the pudding is in the eating, so this probably is not the right question to ask. For what is important is not how much one reads but what one does with whatever one reads.

Education has a lot to do with sifting the wheat from the chaff, and with ordering things according to their worth. This is where ‘modern’ education leaves so much to be desired. Under the so-called ‘tolerance’ movement, it encourages collecting every idea about a subject that anybody ever thought of putting to paper. Making one’s mind a compendium of all those ideas is hardly the best use of one’s intellectual capital. We have numerous encyclopaedias for that purpose. The difference between an encyclopaedia and a man is that the latter has a life to live. What good is knowledge if it does not translate into a way of life? What good is learning if it is not reflected in action? What good is reading if one remains a study in contradictions and doublethink?

While it is true that there are good books and others that are not so good, a reader can benefit from almost any book provided he actively interacts with it and seeks to place everything he reads in the appropriate boxes in his mind. That is when his reading becomes part of his believing and doing. If reading the best books does not reinforce or modify a man’s worldview – one that can be explained, defended, and lived – and if it does not spur him on to creativity, then his learning is like the ‘learning’ of a library when more philosophy tomes are added to its shelves.

Hasan Aftab Saeed
Hasan Aftab Saeed
The author is a connoisseur of music, literature, and food (but not drinks). He can be reached at www.facebook.com/hasanaftabsaeed

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