Portals to a thousand worlds
Guerilla philosopher Damon Young makes a compelling case for why endurance reading matters, writes 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.
is The Australian’s chief