Por­tals to a thou­sand worlds

Guerilla philoso­pher Da­mon Young makes a com­pelling case for why en­durance read­ing mat­ters, writes Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

Da­mon Young’s lat­est foray into pop phi­los­o­phy has a pithy if mis­lead­ingly “how-to’’ ti­tle. Yes, this is a book about the art of read­ing — and it is a fine and thought­ful sur­vey of its par­tic­u­lar field. But terms such as “art’’ and “read­ing’’ have been sub­tly de­val­ued in the mod­ern era, their ear­lier mean­ings worn to a polyester sheen. Read­ing was once re­garded as a skill won from long prac­tice, care­ful ap­pli­ca­tion and close ob­ser­va­tion; books were met with such for­mal­ity that gown and caps were donned be­fore a vol­ume was opened. To­day we slump in our py­ja­mas in front of a tor­rent of click­bait and lis­ti­cles, a dozen tabs open at once on our screens. What Young lays down here, then, is a chal­lenge to all of us who still pre­sume to care about ink on pa­per. He does not out­line an art of read­ing so much as an ethics of at­ten­tion to­wards the writ­ten word.

The up­shot is brac­ing. Those fa­mil­iar with Young’s back­ground as a guerilla philoso­pher will know that he is ca­pa­ble of cit­ing Si­mone de Beau­voir and Bat­man in the same para­graph with­out di­min­ish­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of ei­ther. And those who have read his se­ries of wise, witty and learned ef­forts to sim­ply ex­plain com­plex ideas — or to un­pack the buried com­plex­ity of os­ten­si­bly sim­ple ones — will be aware that th­ese are not mere in­tel­lec­tual ex­er­cises but full-length marathons of heart and mind.

This new mis­sion is no dif­fer­ent. Young has set out to re­mind us of what is at stake when we read a book: not just a few hours of our valu­able time, but our sec­u­lar souls. His in­tro­duc­tion opens with the star­tling claim (though one also ad­vanced by Proust in his pref­ace to John Ruskin’s The Bi­ble of Amiens) that the in­di­vid­ual self is first cre­ated by sub­mis­sion to the in­vented selves of oth­ers. For the 11-year-old Young it was Arthur Co­nan Doyle’s Sher­lock Holmes, As­terix comics and Fer­di­nand the Bull; for the rest of us, it could be any book, any au­thor. The point is that we recog­nise, in read­ing, a sense of some­thing be­yond our­selves — one that clar­i­fies the pa­ram­e­ters of our con­scious­ness and beck­ons to men­tal states or imag­i­na­tive realms that ex­ceed them: There is no one-size-fits-all dis­cov­ery of lit­er­ary power. Read­ing is quick with quirks of era, fam­ily, and psy­chol­ogy. ... In many cases, there is a long­ing for what Her­bert Mar­cuse la­belled “hol­i­day re­al­ity’’: an asy­lum from or­di­nar­i­ness. Charles Dick­ens wrote about this as his boy­hood hope of “some­thing be­yond that place and time’’. But as Dick­ens’s later pop­u­lar­ity sug­gests, th­ese mo­ments of youth­ful bib­lio­philia also co­in­cide with the dis­cov­ery of clout. The The Art of Read­ing By Da­mon Young MUP, 139pp, $27.99 child is be­com­ing aware, not only of worlds pop­u­lated by de­tec­tives, Gauls or bulls, but also of an “I’’: the reader, whose con­sent and cre­ativ­ity brings th­ese worlds into be­ing. Read­ing is an in­tro­duc­tion to a more am­bi­tious mind.

It is a heavy re­spon­si­bil­ity to lay down, though a fair one, since, as Young sug­gests, each book is no more than a dead ob­ject un­til its reader comes along and brings it to life. In this sense The Art of Read­ing pro­ceeds in sym­pa­thy with lit­er­ary the­o­ries de­vel­oped dur­ing the 1970s and 80s by schol­ars like Wolf­gang Iser and Stan­ley Fish be­neath the um­brella of “reader-re­sponse’’. They ar­gued that the reader was an ac­tive agent whose in­ter­pre­ta­tive ef­forts im­parted “real ex­is­tence” to the work, and in do­ing so, they com­pleted its mean­ing. This is no pas­sive curl-up on the sofa with a cup of tea — more a care-filled, chal­leng­ing, stren­u­ous in­vest­ment of self and mind.

Young anatomises this process by split­ting the act of read­ing into a spec­trum of in­di­vid­ual virtues — cu­rios­ity, pa­tience, courage, pride, tem­per­ance and jus­tice — and then de­vot­ing a chap­ter to each. Th­ese are idio­syn­cratic de­mar­ca­tions, and each is ap­proached from an an­gle made oblique by Young’s wide and deep read­ing. Take Pa­tience, which opens with a scene in which the Queen, qui­etly read­ing in Buckingham Palace, grows irate with Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, a late novel whose prose “is ag­o­nis­ingly pro­tracted: clauses within clauses, com­mas and em dashes, con­stantly de­fer­ring the full stop’’. Her majesty soon tires of th­ese Ed­war­dian eva­sions: “Oh, do get on,’’ she fi­nally ex­claims.

What the au­thor does here is use one lit­er­ary con­struct — the Queen, crisply and fondly ren­dered by English au­thor Alan Ben­nett in the novella The Un­com­mon Reader — to in­ter­ro­gate the ways in which an­other au­thor (James) de­mands some­thing of us which we late mod­erns have in short sup­ply. The Queen in Ben­nett’s book is in her 70s; she has come late to read­ing af­ter one of her cor­gis es­caped into a lend­ing li­brary and obliged her to bor­row a vol­ume. Young de­scribes her frus­tra­tion and im­pa­tience as emerg­ing from a sense of mor­tal­ity: there are so many books to read, so lit­tle time in which to do so.

And yet there are ben­e­fits for the rest of us — pre­sum­ably with a lit­tle more time on our hands — in ac­cept­ing that some of the best read­ing is that which re­sists our im­pulse to­wards nar­ra­tive sugar and fat. James is an ex­treme ex­am­ple of a broader phe­nom­e­non: the dif­fi­cult writer who obliges us to slow down to walk­ing pace, to grap­ple with minu­tiae, to linger, lost, in the maze of an au­thor­i­ta­tive imag­i­na­tion. Such books are a kind of duty, yet they are not empty pageants: This is why en­durance is cul­ti­vated: not sim­ply for its own sake, but for some worth­while end. For Aquinas and Au­gus­tine, pa­tience is a virtue be­cause the saint or martyr is hurt for sal­va­tion’s sake: “true pa­tience of the right­eous”, as Au­gus­tine put it, “from which is on them the love of God”. Clearly the Queen will not find re­demp­tion in The Golden Bowl, a tale of adul­tery and earthly mar­riage. But the point is clear enough: for­bear­ance is valu­able be­cause it con­trib­utes to some­thing good — oth­er­wise it is sim­ply stub­born­ness or numb­ness. Cicero’s def­i­ni­tion, in his De In­ven­tione, is typ­i­cally con­cise: Pa­tience is a vol­un­tary and sus­tained en­durance, for the sake of what is honourable or ad­van­ta­geous, of dif­fi­cult or painful labours.

‘‘So get­ting to the fi­nal fly­leaf is im­por­tant,’’ Young con­cludes, ‘‘be­cause read­ing the whole text of­fers some­thing oth­er­wise un­ob­tain­able.’’ This is an im­por­tant dis­tinc­tion to draw. The Queen knows what it is to be bored — it is the nec­es­sary con­di­tion of her role. But the pa­tience de­manded of her by James is some­thing dif­fer­ent. He alerts her to the world be­yond her head. The Golden Bowl un­locks her from the iso­lat­ing prison of rank and per­mits her to en­ter the thoughts and emo­tional states of oth­ers. It is a cure for her con­sti­tu­tional aloof­ness, a be­lated education in al­ter­na­tive ex­is­tences.

Though, like all virtues, pa­tience is shaded by vice — in this case ob­du­racy. And one of the plea­sures of th­ese es­says is the way in which Young strikes a bal­ance be­tween such op­po­si­tions. Af­ter cel­e­brat­ing the rad­i­cally orig­i­nal thought of Ger­man philoso­pher Martin Hei­deg­ger, he swivels back to show how the man’s anti-Semitism and sup­port for the Nazis emerged out of a lack of auto-ex­am­i­na­tion. As a reader, he was a thrilling arche­ol­o­gist of lan­guage and con­cept; al­most sin­gle-hand­edly, he re­vived the worth of philoso­phers who lived be­fore Plato. And yet his in­quis­i­tive­ness was dam­aged by in­tel­lec­tual over­reach: he read into books of the past what he wished to see in the present. He saw in Na­tional So­cial­ism his own ab­strac­tions made con­crete. His read­ing and his life were char­ac­terised by a cu­ri­ous in­cu­rios­ity.

In Tem­per­ance, Young ad­mits to ad­dic­tive read­ing of low-calo­rie lit ( Star Trek nov­els), a diet that re­sults in slack-jawed vacu­ity. He then (rather un­der­min­ing his claims to in­cor­ri­gi­bly low­brow taste) brings in Ni­et­zsche and Schopen­hauer to dis­cuss the ways in which the kind and the amount of read­ing we do vary as much as our phys­i­cal ap­petites. Some­times we need a palate cleanser; some­times we crave a bloody steak. De­spite the ad­mis­sion of read­erly wrong­do­ing, the reader can­not but in­tuit a fiercely dis­ci­plined ap­proach to the art of read­ing on Young’s part. His boot-camp sever­ity ap­pealed to my flabby men­tal mus­cles; he qui­etly in­sisted that I do bet­ter as a reader, and I ap­pre­ci­ated and re­sponded to the charge.

And yet it is here, in what is oth­er­wise an em­i­nently read­able, rous­ing and hugely in­tel­li­gent ac­count, that my only cavil lies. Young is so ded­i­cated a reader, so alert to the mi­cro­met­rics of con­scious­ness when one mind meets an­other through the medium of the text, that he some­times passes over the plea­sure that re­sults from even the most chal­leng­ing book. Born rich in the love of his sub­ject, it’s just some­thing he as­sumes. And yet plea­sure — the pure plea­sure of the text — is the most per­sua­sive ped­a­gogy we have to of­fer oth­ers, pre­cisely be­cause the joy we take from a great read­ing ex­pe­ri­ence ar­rives as a gift as much as a task. Good sex may be phys­i­cally de­mand­ing too, but the re­sult­ing grat­i­fi­ca­tion can­cels out any sense of ef­fort.

This is a small com­plaint about a large book, how­ever. Large in the sense that it seeks to re­ori­ent and re­cal­i­brate our read­ing senses in an age of dis­trac­tion. Large in its faith that as in­di­vid­u­als and cit­i­zens, we will em­brace the no­tion that read­ing well is an obli­ga­tion: a mat­ter of ethics as much as aes­thet­ics. And large in the sense that its 139 pages hold what Ruskin called a king’s trea­sure: it con­tains por­tals to a thou­sand other worlds.

lit­er­ary critic.

is The Aus­tralian’s chief

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