In 1940, CS Lewis, in The Problems of Pain, demonstrated to us that pain is not only omnipresent, but also something that often – with greater frequency than we imagine – provides greater opportunities for heroism. He even links it to the love of god or rather god’s love for us.
Leaving god aside, the pain of introspection, of our desire to contemplate better possibilities or come to terms with the present state of the world, leads to many creative outbursts in our lives. But I am going to argue a different case for it, particularly for readers, a class of people now rapidly diminishing, and very hastily disguised into more boring variants of unnecessary beings.
Get involved with the words
Last year at Oxford, I had the delightful opportunity of meeting a fellow “reader”, but the kind who changed my life. He introduced me to Virginia Woolf, and the art of careful reading. He insisted that I re-read the classics and particularly Woolf, to look for things beyond the story line and a hyper ventilated, exuberant characterisation of the narrative.
He asked me to get involved with the words, with the flow of carefully crafted structures of paragraphs, to decide on ideas in my own uninhabited space, to be fierce and bold in my consciousness, and to be very attentive to what I allowed my soul to absorb. I am lucky I started with Woolf, because this is how she framed her thoughts on love in Mrs Dalloway:
"Septimus has been working too hard" - that was all she could say to her own mother. To love makes one solitary, she thought.
I did not enjoy the book for its plot, nor for its sordid, sardonic characters. But I loved the sentences. They felt like the rain of sharp droplets on a dark, dewy morning. They woke me up to language, to etymology, and the power of words.
Foraging for conversations
Since that day, I have gone searching for these unusual adventures, mostly solitary, through vast, trudging explorations of large bookstores and little hidden shops, for books that would transform the sense of my world, for people who read carefully, looking for beautiful phrases amongst the pages of commercially bound yellow papers, foraging for snippets of conversations to memorise, hoping to use them one day in their regular lives.
I discovered that we fall in love with books for very many reasons. The art of careful reading involves exploring these with an analytical, heightened sense. I suppose many of the reasons are the same as the ones for falling in love – imagination, or the sense of one, the wildly different ideas and the world they create and tear apart with equal ease, the people we are destined to become, and the most ardently loved passions that we are forced to abandon.
The art of careful reading is much more than a habit. In CS Lewis’s words, it is a necessary process of “mental recreation”, a feeding of the minds, or, as he puts it, “mastication”. The famous curator and blogger Maria Popova describes this time and again as essential for the elusive meaningful life, perhaps more so a life not simply dictated by entertainment.
To those of us who attach copious amounts of sentimentality to reading, this becomes imperative for good, thoughtful writing, which is a great contribution to making the art of writing itself a very driven, determined process.
Zadie Smith describes this phenomenon very eloquently by saying that reading, or a certain kind of it is much like a musical skill, where the reader works at the “gift” for hours, assimilating thought and emotion, searching for new interpretations every time. She humorously calls it “unfashionable”.
In a slightly different strain, Neil Gaiman invokes the power of libraries to change a predictable future generation which will be convinced “that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.”
The fragility of a careless word
The art of careful reading exposes readers to the fact of reading very many books, of books written over and over again, of books written by very many people, people very different from you and me, of books that have changed human thoughts and human histories. This kind of reading involves waking up to every page as a fresh assignment, of being oddly determined to understand the fragility of a careless word, a careless dream. It is painful, solitary and deeply discomforting.
However, it is also filled with promise and empowerment, from quiet introspection, and hope that can only spring from a thoroughly exercised brain. The art of careful, meticulous reading is an imperative to becoming a more nuanced, perceptive human being.
In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury writes about a world bereft of belief in reading, and he writes savagely about what happens to a generation that stopped mulling, thinking, having meaningful relationships, a sense of imagination; of a world where there was no reason to be alive.
Reflect on the world we are living in today. If we forget to read, to read very carefully, if we lose that art today, we seek to lose our only claim on sensitivity and empathy, our claim to a better world where we do not joyfully elect demagogues and celebrate violence by using careless words. Our stream of consciousness can lead to a better reasoned, and more importantly, better imagined world of tomorrow.