The Bookish Life by Joseph Epstein | First Things

This essay in the November issue of First Things is a romping good read about “the bookish life,” which, from this writer’s perspective, is really his personal take on the joys of book-choosing and reading. It is far from the standard fare, for not only does Epstein take you far and wide in describing his “bookish life,” but he also dismisses much of the “conventional wisdom” about what to read and how to read.

There is much that I appreciated and enjoyed – even laughed about – in this article. I saved it when I first read it earlier this month, and as November comes to a close, I share it with those interested. Here are some of the more serious parts from which I benefited. Find the full essay at the link below.

Only after I had departed high school did books begin to interest me, and then only in my second year of college, when I transferred from the ­University of Illinois to the University of Chicago. Among the most beneficial departures from standard college fare at the University of Chicago was the brilliant idea of eliminating textbooks from undergraduate study. This meant that instead of reading, in a thick­ textbook, “In his Politics Aristotle held . . . ,” or “In Civilization and Its Discontents Freud argued . . . ,” or “In On Liberty John Stuart Mill asserted . . . ,” students read the Politics, Civilization and Its Discontents, On Liberty, and a good deal else. Not only read them, but, if they were like me, became excited by them. Heady stuff, all this, for a nineteen-year-old semi-literate who, on first encountering their names, was uncertain how to pronounce Proust or Thucydides.

…Nor, I suspect, is the bookish soul likely to read chiefly on a Kindle or a tablet. I won’t go into the matter of the aesthetics of book design, the smell of books, the fine feel of a well-made book in one’s hands, lest I be taken for a hedonist, a reactionary, and a snob. More important, apart from the convenience of Kindles and tablets—in allowing for enlarged print, in portability if one wants to take more than one or two books along when traveling—I have come to believe that there is a mysterious but quite real difference between words on pixel and words in print. For reasons that perhaps one day brain ­science will reveal to us, print has more weight, a more substantial feel, makes a greater demand on one’s attention, than the pixel. One tends not to note a writer’s style as clearly in pixels as one does in print. Presented with a thirty- or forty-paragraph piece of writing in pixels, one wants to skim after fifteen or twenty paragraphs in a way that one doesn’t ordinarily wish to do in print. Pixels for information and convenience, then, print for knowledge and pleasure is my sense of the difference between the two.

…Reading may not be the same as conversation, but reading the right books, the best books, puts us in the company of men and women more intelligent than ourselves. Only by keeping company with those smarter than ourselves, in books or in persons, do we have a chance of becoming a bit smarter. My friend Edward Shils held that there were four modes, or means, of education: that in the classroom, that through superior newspapers and journals, that from the conversation of intelligent friends, and that obtained from bookstores and especially used bookstores. The so-called digital age, spearheaded by Amazon, is slowly putting this last-named mode out of business. With its ample stock, quick delivery, and slightly lower prices, Amazon is well on its way to killing the independent bookstore. But the owners of these stores are not the only losers. Readers, too, turn out to be ill-served by this bit of mixed progress that Amazon and other online booksellers have brought.

…Nietzsche said that life without music is a mistake. I would agree, adding that it is no less a mistake without books. Proust called books “the noblest of distractions,” and they are assuredly that, but also more, much more. “People say that life is the thing,” wrote Logan Pearsall Smith, “but I prefer reading.” In fact, with a bit of luck, the two reinforce each other. In The Guermantes Way volume of his great novel, Proust has his narrator note a time when he knew “more books than people and literature better than life.” The best arrangement, like that between the head and the heart, is one of balance between life and reading. One brings one’s experience of life to one’s reading, and one’s reading to one’s experience of life. You can get along without reading serious books—many extraordinary, large-hearted, highly intelligent people have—but why, given the chance, would you want to? Books make life so much richer, grander, more splendid. The bookish life is not for everyone, nor are its rewards immediately evident, but at a minimum, taking it up you are assured, like the man said, of never being out of work.

Source: The Bookish Life by Joseph Epstein | Articles | First Things

Published in: on November 27, 2018 at 10:46 PM  Leave a Comment