The modern world firmly equates the intelligent person with the well-read person. Reading books, a lot of books, is the hallmark of brilliance as well as the supreme gateway to prestige and understanding. It’s hard to imagine anyone arriving at any insights of value without having worked their way through an enormous number of titles over the years. There is apparently no limit to how much we should read. We might – logically and ideally – be reading all the time and get ever cleverer with every moment we do so. The number of books we have managed to read by the day we die will tell us pretty much all we need to know about the complexity and maturity of our minds.
This so-called maximalist philosophy of reading enjoys enormous cultural prestige. It is backed up by enormous publishing and journalistic industries that constantly parade new titles before us – and imply that we might be swiftly left behind and condemned to a narrow and provincial mindset if we did not rush to read four of this year’s major prize winning books as well as seven fascinating titles that have received ardent reviews in the Sunday supplements since March. As a result, our shelves are overburdened and our guilt at how far behind we are intense.
Yet amidst this pressure to eat our way through an ever-larger number of titles, we might pause to reflect on a fascinating aspect of the pre-modern world: it never put people under any pressure to read very much at all. Reading was held to be extremely important, but the number of new books one read was entirely by the by. This wasn’t principally an economic point. Books were very expensive of course, but this wasn’t really the issue. What mattered was to read a few books very well, not squander one’s attention promiscuously on a great number of volumes.
The premodern world directed us to read so little because it was obsessed by a question modernity likes to dodge: what is the point of reading? And it had answers. To take a supreme example, Christians and Muslims located the value of reading in a very specific and narrow goal: the attainment of holiness. To read was to try to approximate the mind of god. In each case this meant that one book, and one book only – the Bible or the Koran – was to be held up as vastly and incomparably more important than any other. To read this book, repeatedly and with great attention, probably five or so pages every day, was thought more crucial than to rush through a whole library every week; in fact reading widely would have been regarded with suspicion, because most other books would – to some extent – have to prove misleading and distracting.
Similarly, in the Ancient Greek world, one was meant to focus in on a close knowledge of just two books: Homer’s Odyssey and his Iliad, because these were deemed the perfect repository of the Greek code of honour and the best guides to action in military and civilian affairs. Much later, in 18th century England, the ideal of reading came to be focused on Virgil’s Aeneid. To know this single long poem, almost by heart, was all a gentleman required to pass as cultivated. To read much more was viewed as eccentric – and a little unhealthy too.
We can pick up the minimalist attitude to reading in early visual depictions of one of the heroes of Christian scholarship, St Jerome who was by all accounts the supreme intellect of Christendom, who translated the Greek and Hebrew portions of the Bible into Latin, wrote a large number of commentaries on scripture and is now the patron saint of libraries and librarians. But despite all his scholarly efforts, when it came to showing where and how St Jerome worked, a detail stands out: there are almost no books in his famous study. Strikingly, the most intelligent and thoughtful intellectual of the early church seems to have read fewer things than an average modern eight year old. To follow the depiction by Antonello da Messina, St Jerome appears to be the proud owner of about ten books in all!
The modern world has dramatically parted ways with this minimalist pre-modern approach to reading. We have adopted an Enlightenment mantra that runs in a very different direction, stating that there should be no limit to how much we read because, in answer to the question of why we read, there is only one response that will ever be encompassing and ambitious enough: we read in order to know everything. We aren’t reading to understand God or to follow civic virtue or to calm our minds. We are reading to understand the whole of human existence, the full inventory of the planets and the entirety of cosmic history. We are collective believers in the idea of totalising knowledge; the more books we have produced and digested, the closer we will be to grasping everything.
The sheer scale of the ambition helps to explain why the depictions of libraries in the Enlightenment period showed off vast and endless palaces to learning and hinted that if money had been no object, they would have been constructed to ring the earth.
We may not be aware of how indebted we are to the Enlightenment idea of reading, but its maximalist legacy is present within the publishing industry, within the way books are presented to the public at school and in shops – and within our own guilty responses to the pressure to read more.
We can also hazard an observation: this exhaustive approach to reading does not make us particularly happy. We are drowning in books, we have no time ever to re-read one and we appear fated to a permanent sense of being under-read when compared with our peers and what the media has declared respectable.
In order to ease and simplify our lives, we might dare to ask a very old-fashioned question: what am I reading for? And this time, rather than answering ‘in order to know everything,’ we might parcel off a much more limited, focused and useful goal. We might – for example – decide that while society as a whole may be on a search for total knowledge, all that we really need and want to do is gather knowledge that is going to be useful to us as we lead our own lives. We might decide on a new mantra to guide our reading henceforth: we want to read in order to learn to be content. Nothing less and nothing more.
With this new, far more targeted ambition in mind, much of the pressure to read constantly, copiously and randomly starts to fade. We suddenly have the same option that was once open to St Jerome; we might have only a dozen books on our shelves – and yet feel in no way intellectually undernourished or deprived.
Once we know that we are reading to be content, we won’t need to chase every book published this season. We can zero in on titles that best explain what we deem to be the constituent parts of contentment. So for example, we will need a few key books that explain our psyches to us, that teach us about how families work and how they might work better, that take us through how to find a job one can love and how to develop the courage to develop our opportunities. We’ll need some books that talk about friendship and love, sexuality and health. We’ll want books about how to travel, how to appreciate, how to be grateful and to how forgive. We’ll look for books that help us to stay calm, fight despair and diminish our disappointments. Finally, we’ll look for books that gently guide us to how to minimise regret and learn to die well.
With these goals in mind, we won’t need a boundless library, we won’t have to keep up frantically with publishing schedules. The more we understand what reading is for us, the more we can enjoy intimate relationships with a few works only. Our libraries can be simple. Instead of always broaching new material, re-reading might become crucial, the reinforcement of what we already know but tend so often to forget. The truly well-read person isn’t the one who has read a gargantuan number of books, it’s someone who has let themselves be shaped – deeply shaped in their capacity to live and die well by a very few well-chosen ones.