Working the Reading Muscle

Being quick to judge a book might feel like intelligence, but maybe its not.  Perhaps it is a means for us to shimmy out of a difficult text and move on to something more effortless.  If we think of this exercising of our reading skills as we think of our muscles, it may be we are giving in when the possibility of gain is just ahead.

And what is the price of our impatience?  That we never get anywhere worth going; that we perpetually fall short or turn to the next thing which also barely holds our attention long enough before we move to something even less taxing still.  And so it goes, on and on, but not indefinitely, for surely our muscles will atrophy to such a point we must look exclusively at pictures made by someone else, not those made within our own minds from the pages we have read.

Of course, television is freaking fantastic.  I’m not saying it isn’t.  I’m watching The Wire at present and trying to work out how they’ve made me care about all those characters.  And movies, well I love them too, but I know I need to read as well, and read in a way which challenges me because when I read I am imagining the world for the first time.  I must do this.  I have no actor, set designer or director to do it for me.  The world will only come to life if I allow it to.

This muscle of the imagination contains within it the potential to envisage other realities beyond my own.  It can move me toward solutions I couldn’t envisage otherwise, help me to glimpse other perspectives.  A glimpse is all I need to know that other minds exist beyond myself and this is a revolutionary thought for the individual.

I know it is not on us to save the world.  Of course its not, but one can see how things go when something of value loses momentum out there.  We may not save the world, but maybe we will save our own selves by keeping alive what we know of reading; what we learn while doing it; exercising the patience required to do it, so that at the very least, it will not become extinct within us.  We will not be the ones to jump to hatred or despair too soon because we are readers.  We read deeply.  We push down frustrations and resist our impulses to have things over before they are ready.  We do the work.

Yes, I know, what if our aim is to simply enjoy our reading?  We are not professors in literature, so what does it matter? I just want to escape, you say.  I want the world to dim outside and the world within to blossom out into it.  And I would say, escape and enjoyment are found in difficult texts too, but only if we persevere .  When we laugh out loud while reading James Joyce’s, Ulysses, because we got the joke, its like cracking a code.  (Read review here)  We realized it was funny and because of this, we sink further into it.  That’s patience rewarded.

And are we to move further into impatience as our devotion to our clocks and technology increases?  Will difficult things, difficult books, go by the wayside as we say we just don’t have time?  And reading…..what can reading give us in exchange for this jealously guarded time?  Worlds.  It gives us worlds.  It may also give us ‘a heads-up’ of what’s to come should we not heed its message.  Bookish philosopher, Damon Young says:

“Sometimes we suffer because the author has failed, and sometimes because she has not; because her words rightly prompt misery or fury.”

When we elect for the easy escape, we must ask ourselves, what of these easy novels stay with us? What time have we gained in reading them?  Do they give us something to dwell on or do they dissolve as soon as they are ended and that be their only magic?

Saint Augustine said:

“Patience is the companion of wisdom.”

So let us try for that.  Let’s sit in the chair or prop ourselves up in bed and open that book.  Let’s clear the mind and open it out in honour of what’s to come.  Let’s make a commitment to not quail at the first sign of difficulty, but have the faith to wade deeper in in order that we may understand.  And until that understanding comes, let’s be okay in our confusion.  Let’s try.  Let’s not judge too soon and set too early in motion our reasons to give in.

It may not be Ulysses we are reading.  It may be we have not read anything for a long while and wish to develop the habit again.  Staying with a book, any book, may be the challenge right now and, if we are to judge, would it not be fair to continue on until its end to confirm or deny our first impressions.  This reading to the end may not be something we can afford to do with every book and will not need to once we’ve done so enough to develop our taste and hone our skills.

Even then, there will be books we put down because we must.

“It’s rubbish”, we say.

And we could be right, but what if it is us who is lacking and time will fill us in?

Damon Young says of age and experience:

“This is the less noticeable patience: with ourselves, as readers.  Because we cannot fake experience, we simply have to wait.”

And this too might do us good.

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