Reasons for Reading

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Perfectionism is probably my greatest vice, and as a result I spent far too many hours revising my post about The Shelf. But the endless rewriting did help me to see still more clearly what the book provides for me — the image of a woman who is fearless and unashamed in assigning value to the work she chooses to do. As I said in that post, I have done my own reading projects, picking unlikely combinations of books and settling down to get to know them — but it has always been a guilty pleasure, something I would not admit to anyone that I was doing. It seemed so… trivial, such a waste of time, or perhaps at best a childish game which might be secretly enjoyed but never respected, never considered work. It shook my self-judgement to the core to find Rose not only taking her own project seriously, but calling on her readers to embark on their own adventures.

In the midst of the struggle to shape my thoughts and feelings into coherent words, I decided to see what other people had thought of The Shelf. It was widely reviewed, most notably by Christine Smallwood in The New Yorker and Rachel Cooke in The Guardian. Reading these reviews, I was struck by how negative they were, how intensely focused both critics were on judging whether or not Rose had made good use of her time. Why were they so narrow-minded? No wonder I find it hard to take my own work seriously, I thought, when a woman like Rose, a retired English professor with many books to her name, is treated with such harshness. My next post, I vowed with some glee, would take these critics to task for their short-sightedness.

So here I am, ready to do battle — except I realised, upon rereading the reviews, there is no battle to be done. All that harsh judgement I saw was my own self-doubt and shame, casting a shadow so large it obscured what Smallwood and Cooke had truly written. In actuality both critics not only praise Rose’s work, but also insightfully connect it with larger cultural questions about the value of reading novels in a society which seems to do so less and less. I still do not like that Smallwood calls Rose’s book “the latest stunt book” but it seems a term of affection, as she goes on to argue that:

Rose’s stunt is useless — and wonderfully so. There is something freeing in that uselessness, particularly at this moment, when so many act as though reading were a civic duty, good only for its power to teach empathy or improve job performance.

Cooke, meanwhile, expresses frustration that people are talking about books instead of reading them, and expresses some disdain of the entire genre of bibliomemoirs, but she praises Rose’s book as being something different, and ends her piece with the hope “that these books really are reminding people of the deep and abiding pleasures of reading.”

Reading as a pleasure, reading for utility — I am very much on the fence. Arguing that all reading must be productive seems like arguing that all sex must be procreative. Why not make room for pure pleasure? And yet I do demand more from the books I read than that they distract or entertain me; I want to encounter works that make my world larger, that open windows to let in more light and air, books that help me to “enjoy my life more fully,” as Rose says that reading does for her. What I found marvellous about The Shelf is that Rose’s reading did enrich her life, not just by adding three books to what she describes as the “inner shelf of texts that accompany me through life,” but because she insisted over and over again on connecting the act of reading to her life. The books on her inner shelf, I imagine, are not those she carries in a bag slung over her shoulder, but rather the ones that walk beside her on the road. Those are the books I wish to find for myself; the books that make room for more life, that walk with me. I have a few already; I hope that taking my own adventures seriously will improve my tools so that I may find more.

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