We read­ers are ra­tio­nal an­i­mals — but an­i­mals nonethe­less, whose whole bod­ies feed on words

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Ibe­gin with the hunger of Al­bert Ca­mus. The philoso­pher, nov­el­ist and play­wright was born in French Al­ge­ria, liv­ing for much of his child­hood in a home with­out elec­tric­ity or run­ning wa­ter. No oven — just an al­co­hol stove. No toi­lets — just holes in the ma­sonry. And no fa­ther: his dad, Lu­cien, was killed by shrap­nel when Ca­mus was a baby. In The First Man, Ca­mus wrote of his mother Cather­ine’s “gnarled” hands, bro­ken by years of scrub­bing floors and wring­ing laun­dry. He de­scribed his grand­mother’s whip, the bull piz­zle, used when the boy did not obey.

But this was no sim­ple lament. Ca­mus also of­fered his child­hood plea­sures: the Mediter­ranean sea, the smell of dirt in au­tumn rains, soc­cer matches, the stoic man­li­ness of sailors, even the stink of urine af­ter days of ba­nal of­fice labour in the ly­cée hol­i­days.

One notable joy: bor­row­ing books. The boys walked from the li­brary to the main street, skimmed the text un­der street­lights, then ran to their homes to read un­der paraf­fin lamps. Ca­mus wrote that he wanted “small type stretch­ing all the way across tightly jus­ti­fied lines, filled to the brim with words and sen­tences, like those enor­mous rus­tic dishes you can eat at long and heartily with­out ever emp­ty­ing them”.

This is Ca­mus’ hunger. His urge to dash into the Al­ge­rian waves, or stand squint­ing into the tem­pest — this was how he read. “De­vour­ing ev­ery­thing in­dis­crim­i­nately”, he said he “swal­lowed the best at the same time as the worst.”

Ca­mus con­sumed words, and then di­gested their fan­tasies of com­edy and hero­ism, metabolis­ing them un­til they were him. His de­sire for life pushed him to fight, to ham­mer, to kick — and crack those cloth spines, with their scent of ink and glue.

When I pic­ture my own boy­hood and youth, it is, among other things, less savoury, an end­less meal of th­ese lit­er­ary cour­ses. Like Ca­mus, I was as starved for text as I was for salt wa­ter swim­ming and fried chicken and, later, a glimpse of thighs un­der the class­room desk. This was not sim­ply a cal­cu­lated choice or neu­tral pref­er­ence — it was an urge.

My point is that read­ing is not just a cog­ni­tive pur­suit. It is in­tel­lec­tual, of course: an achieve­ment of high ab­strac­tion. But en­tan­gled with the cere­bral is the vis­ceral: pas­sion, ar­dour, avid­ity, yearn­ing. We read­ers are ra­tio­nal an­i­mals — but an­i­mals nonethe­less, whose whole bod­ies feed on words.

But why? Why drool for new re­leases, or re­mem­ber The Magic Far­away Tree as de­li­cious like an all-day gob­stop­per? Read­ing of­fers ex­pe­ri­ences. And this is no small thing, be­cause life al­ways in­volves ex­pe­ri­ence: do­ing and un­der­go­ing, act­ing and re­act­ing, speak­ing and re­ply­ing, per­ceiv­ing and be­ing per­ceived. Ex­is­tence is a to-and-fro be­tween crea­ture and en­vi­ron­ment, self and world, I and thou. Like all art, the writ­ten word pro­vides an ex­pe­ri­ence: sen­sa­tion, emo­tion and thought, given new new unity. Some new shape, form, pattern.

While we of­ten de­fend read­ing as the means to some end, th­ese ex­pe­ri­ences are ends in them­selves. And if read­ing does have handy perks, this is chiefly found in the ex­pe­ri­ence. To recog­nise my own bizarre re­la­tion­ship to suc­cess, it’s not enough to know about Com­stock in Or­well’s Keep the As­pidis­tra Fly­ing. I have to smell his dingy book­shop, lis­ten to his screech­ing against money, feel the grease in his clothes, and watch his baby­ish cru­el­ties to his girl­friend, Rose­mary.

But th­ese lit­er­ary ex­pe­ri­ences aren’t just there. The reader has to turn signs into sense. This is what Jean-Paul Sartre meant when he said: “There is no art ex­cept for and by oth­ers.”

Read­ing is an act of lib­erty, in which we freely and know­ingly take re­spon­si­bil­ity for turn­ing words into worlds. So how do we read well? In The Art of Read­ing, I ar­gue that this is best en­cour­aged by virtues. This sounds stuffy, but the orig­i­nal Greek word areté, sim­ply meant ‘ex­cel­lence’: there were phys­i­cal virtues, in­tel­lec­tual virtues, eth­i­cal virtues. It is a de­sir­able qual­ity of char­ac­ter, which had noth­ing to do with pearl-clutch­ing right­eous­ness or spe­cial­ist ex­per­tise.

A virtue is a kind of whole-per­son bent: a know­ing dis­po­si­tion to be­have in the right way at the right time, which in­cludes ap­petites, emo­tions, and rea­sons. Virtue is not in­built, but nor is it ut­terly for­eign to us.

“Nei­ther by na­ture… nor con­trary to na­ture do the virtues arise in us,” Aris­to­tle writes, “rather we are adapted by na­ture to re­ceive them, and are made per­fect by habit.”

Not just any bent will do. Ev­ery virtue is a mean be­tween ex­tremes: a de­fi­ciency and an ex­cess. For ex­am­ple, it is cow­ardly to give up on AS By­att’s bril­liant short story ‘The Chi­nese Lob­ster’ be­cause it prompts me to re­con­sider my prej­u­dices about artists or aca­demics. But it’s fool­hardy to keep read­ing if it will push me to sui­ci­dal ideation. Courage is the mean: I recog­nise the chal­lenge to my bi­ases, but con­tinue be­cause the story of­fers aes­thetic re­wards, in­tel­lec­tual dis­cov­ery and emo­tional vi­brancy.

I’ve di­vided up The Art of Read­ing into six virtues which en­cour­age good read­ing: cu­rios­ity, pa­tience, courage, pride, tem­per­ance, jus­tice. The point is not to carve a stone tablet of the virtues, but to share my vi­sion of read­ing at its best; read­ing that af­fords the most sub­tle, vivid, var­ied lit­er­ary ex­pe­ri­ences, over a life­time.

What might this look like? Here is per­haps my favourite: cu­rios­ity.

Cu­rios­ity is not a clas­si­cal virtue, but it’s vi­tal for ex­cel­lent read­ing. As David Hume ar­gued, cu­rios­ity is plea­sure in in­tel­lec­tual ef­fort; the joy so many of us feel, when ex­er­cis­ing our minds. So it’s not study for pro­fes­sional duty, or the aes­thetic buzz of fine prose. It’s a very spe­cific cog­ni­tive re­ward. And what grat­i­fies cu­rios­ity is not ba­nal fact — things can be true but triv­ial. Cu­rios­ity re­quires seem­ingly im­por­tant and un­usual dis­cov­ery, if only to main­tain at­ten­tion.

A fine ex­am­ple is the Ar­gen­tinian au­thor Jorge Borges, who was al­ways weav­ing from book to book, genre to genre, show­ing the ties be­tween them. In one es­say alone he moves from Cicero, to Blaise Pas­cal, to Thomas Hux­ley, to Lewis Car­roll.

In this way, cu­rios­ity broad­ens our out­look. What we first see as a stand­alone achieve­ment, is of­ten threaded from some wider ta­pes­try. Bat­man ap­pears to be a unique cul­tural fig­ure — and su­per­heroes like the Green Ar­row or Moon Knight are mocked as Bat­man knock-offs. But Bat­man was de­rived from Zorro, The Shadow, Nick Carter, and from an en­tire genre in­clud­ing au­thors like Sher­lock Holmes and Edgar Al­lan Poe.

To re­ally un­der­stand Bat­man is to recog­nise th­ese much larger en­tan­gle­ments, to say noth­ing of the broader cul­tural themes that make a fas­cist vig­i­lante in a ro­dent out­fit seem plau­si­ble.

Cu­rios­ity is valu­able be­cause it seeks out where things come from, how things might have been oth­er­wise — and in this, it height­ens our sen­si­tiv­ity to the work it­self. Of all the gen­res, and all the plots, and all the sym­bols, and all the words, the au­thor chose this. Cu­rios­ity un­does the glib charisma of the ac­tual.

Th­ese virtues are never de­vel­oped alone. We are so­cial an­i­mals, and our ex­cel­lences are cul­ti­vated gre­gar­i­ously — along­side ri­val ideas of beauty, good­ness, jus­tice.

This is the im­mense value of book clubs, book groups, lit­er­ary crit­ics, pan­els — they in­crease our fa­mil­iar­ity with other ways of think­ing, per­ceiv­ing, feel­ing. They share the meal, so to speak. I wrote the Art of Read­ing partly for this rea­son: it’s a com­pan­ion to the lit­er­ary ex­pe­ri­ence. I’m say­ing: “Try this. What do you taste?”

Fel­low bib­lio­philes: bon ap­petite.

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