The Importance of Reading

I.

If you don’t know, then I will you: relaxation is five percent psychological, five percent geographical, eighteen percent the conditions of your surroundings, and seventy-two percent the surface on which you’re reclining. This last point explains why I have had an inexplicable, lifelong love affair with green lawn chairs. Green, mind you. Any other color of chair will not do. I have also had a lifelong obsession with porches. Not patios… Porches. After all, if you are going to harbor some kind of abnormal love for lawn chairs, and green ones at that, you need a porch upon which to set them. That’s where the pipe comes in; preferably a full bent briar, packed (one would hope) with any blend of Peterson tobacco. Captain Black or Sir Walter Raleigh would also be acceptable. A pipe, a green lawn chair, and the porch upon which to stage all this—is there any felicity in the world superior to this? (Yes, I’m well aware I just quoted Jane Austen.) Add a cup of coffee and a notebook for journaling to the mix and I have all I could ask for in the world, except one thing: I’d also require my wife sitting in the lawn chair next to me (though her chair need not be green). But with or without her (she maintains a full-time job, unlike me), I can usually be found, weather permitting (and occasionally when the weather is bleak), in my lawn chair on the porch with either a book or journal to hand, a mug of coffee nearby, the customary pipe hanging coolly from one side of my mouth.

Why am I telling you this? I mean, you don’t know me and it’s not as though I am famous, so why should you give a shit about any of this? Well, you shouldn’t. It’s just that I’m a writer who loves to put things in their proper context. So much of what my readers read was born on pipe smoke and lawn chair contemplations, with the ever-present notebook standing by for the scribbling of rogue thoughts. I’ve wanted to be a writer almost since the moment I left the womb, but the truth is that I’m first and foremost a thinker. I suppose I think too much. As much as I love the thought of Zen (which is really nothing more than training the mind not to think), I suspect that it will never truly be a part of my spiritual life. There’s a sadness in that, the unfortunate reality that a man is impotent to turn off his mind, and also in the fact that he knows there’s nothing he or anyone else can do about it.

Anyway, that’s the context in which my work must always be placed; the context of the author’s life and the tremendous amount of thinking that made it possible. I’m not speaking of the banal “daydreaming” kind of thinking, either. No, I mean the deep, relentless, painful, fist-to-your-chin ruminating, that staring-blankly-off-into-space-with-wide-eyes contemplation that sad souls like me feel compelled to spend their sorry lives engaged in, and most of my thinking is done in the green lawn chairs that have pervaded my life for so long.

Ergo, you stand or sit wherever you’re at this very instant with a book of meandering essays in your hands that will become either one of the most prized peculiarities on your shelf or the most ridiculous assortment of absurdities you have ever come across. I sense it will be one of those two extremes. Good writing or bad, I suspect my work will not live on the fence. I feel like it is either solid gold or utter garbage. Perhaps most writers feel that way? Probably. But then most writers are out of their fucking minds. Trust me, I would know.[1]

II.

That brings us to Arthur Schopenhauer, whom I occasionally call the “irritable German philosopher,” and who, despite his irritability (which palpably comes across in his writings), was a deeply admirable human being. He said, “I’ve never known any trouble that an hour’s reading didn’t assuage…” I know precisely what he meant. If you’re any kind of proper pilgrim at all, you know what he meant, too. There’s something about getting lost in a good book, be it fiction or nonfiction, which transports us fleetingly into another world. Some will call this escaping from reality, likening it to whiling life away in front of the television, but not I. No, I call it diversional education. Reading is different from other forms of entertainment in that it touches the brain in a way that simply staring in front of a screen of spoon-fed imagery cannot. This is because reading demands that your mind construct the mental image, and the imprint from that kind of brain activity goes deeper than that which our eyes behold. Reading, which Descartes described as “a discussion with the finest minds of past centuries,” makes the nerves of the brain to work harder, and like any muscle, harder work means better health—to say nothing of the merits of self-education (which reading invariably is).

I live and love to read. In fact, devour is the word I would use to describe my approach to the wide world of books that are accessible to all who want them. The quintessential bookworm, me. I therefore prepare for the writing of all my essays by devouring the works of those who have gone before me and who have shaped their written legacies much more effectively and attractively than I could hope to shape mine—figures such as Kierkegaard, Proust, Hume, Dostoyevsky, Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche, Sartre,  Camus, Heidegger, and the aforementioned Schopenhauer. My insatiable thirst for knowledge and my love of reading have also taken me through the fascinating writings of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Franz Kafka, Xenophanes of Colophon, Plato, Blaise Pascal, Martin Buber, Gabriel Marcel, and John Locke—not to mention the immense wealth of religious and spiritual texts I’ve sifted through over the years.

When you think of an adventurous passage through life—a quest, let’s say—what most likely comes to mind are images of some traveler traversing a perilous route, searching for something. Seldom do we picture the hero sitting around reading. But when it comes to my approach to life, my quest, reading plays a much larger role than you could imagine. This quest is about more than just asking questions and agonizing over the possible answers. It’s about the pursuit of greater knowledge. Education, research, the study of written and recorded ideas—all of these are of vital importance for the pilgrim who wants to evolve beyond the sphere of existence he currently occupies, that sphere that has proven to be so deficient in the first place, compelling him to ask, “is this all?” or, “is there more?” Thus, to probe the outer reaches of reality in some kind of existentially beneficial way means you must expand your knowledge and conduct research. You must spend hours at the library, or a bookstore, or at home on the Internet, taking notes. Keeping a journal. Furthering the boundaries of your mind. Reality is more than just the space within the four walls of your childhood home and the philosophical values you were taught there by your parents. You must expose yourself to new ideas, other avenues of thought, strange concepts, and higher strata of understanding. You must never allow your own personal faith in God or religion or any form of divinity you believe in to hold you back from this pursuit of knowledge. Trust me on this. I promise you that whatever deities may exist out there would be horrified to see you refusing to know the truth. They would certainly be further horrified to know you were doing it in the name of your belief in them. If there’s a God or some such being (or beings) out there, we must assume he doesn’t want you kept in ignorance. If he did, is this a God worth knowing and believing in?

Therefore, reading is to the living of a profound life what eating, drinking, and sleeping are to physical exertion: nourishment, in short. The study of written texts, the furthering of your mind, the deepening of your knowledge—these are what will sustain you, energize you, and propel you to your ultimate goal.[2] Books, consequently, are your food and drink. They’re the mother of all spiritual and philosophical vitamins. You will need them along the way. A pilgrim cannot long survive on the path unarmed and without provisions. His weapon of choice? Knowledge gained through extensive reading and research. His provisions? Books—the modern equivalent of scrolls, the archaic version of e-readers (of which I am not a fan, though you can’t stop the progress of technology—[insert melancholy sigh here]).

——————————-

[1] The thing about most writers is that they pretty much spend their entire lives in willful yet miserable isolation. I say “willful” because, that’s just what most writers do: they sequester themselves away within their private world of books and mini-bars and hardwood floors and drawn curtains and darkness and there they hunch over typewriters and laptops and dutifully churn out the words the world needs to hear, and they do this because being alone is the best way to enter that mental landscape where the juice flows freely and the muse sings the loudest. And I say “miserable” because even though a writer recognizes that he needs this lifestyle of solitude and silence if he ever hopes to hone his craft, he nevertheless dislikes it because being alone can sometimes be beyond difficult. And it often leads to… deviations in personality.

[2] I was loath to use the word goal here. It’s a dangerous word because it reinforces the endemic, erroneous belief that where you’re going is more important than what you travel through to get there. Words like “goal,” “aim,” and “destination,” though I do use them sometimes, are words the pilgrim would do well to avoid where possible. Furthermore, while most people in the world will advocate the setting of goals in life, I’d say that goal setting should be kept to a strict minimum. Set goals for yourself, but be careful to “confine yourself to the present,” as Marcus Aurelius said, and be wary of living too much in the goal-oriented mindset. Incidentally, The only reason people today know who Marcus Aurelius was is because they saw Richard Harris play him in the film Gladiator. Yeah, he was a Roman Emperor, but few know that he was also a pretty astonishing philosopher. I could spend days reading the things he had to say about life and the world and the nature of humanity (most of which have been collected in the book Meditations).


Taken from my book, Collected Essays.

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