Published September 5th 2005.
One of my favourite movies is Good Will Hunting. There’s a fine dialogue from the movie that popped in my mind when I was reading “Why Read?”. It goes something like this (it’s not verbatim):
Sean: Do you have a soul mate?
Will: What’s that?
Sean: A soul mate is someone you can relate to.
Will: Yes, I have lots.
Sean: Well, name a few.
Will: Shakespeare, Frye, Blake (I don’t remember the actual writers that were mentioned, but I’m pretty sure Shakespeare was one of them).
Sean: Wonderful, but they're all dead.
Will: Not really. At least not to me.
Sean: First off, you can't have a dialogue with them.
Will: Not really. If I get hold of a heater and some serious smelling salts, I surely can.
So. To cut to the chase, I do believe that I can have a dialogue with a writer. As it should be, otherwise there’s no point in reading him.
Edmundson basic assertion relies on Proust’s vision of what it means to read, which I quite agree with: “I should ask whether the words that they read within themselves are the same as those which I have written”, ie, what Proust is saying is that reading is always, or should be, an act of self-discovery on the part of the reader (in this case me). When I immerse myself in a book, I may encounter aspects of myself that have perhaps been “out there” for a long time, ie, in a certain sense they’re unknown to me. In this sense I learn the language of myself. If I quit on a book, whose fault is that? Whether it's the book's or mine is still debatable. Maybe the fault is not in our stars (the book), but in me, so to speak, ie, what flaws of character does that dislike point up in me?
“Some of these books at first rejected me; I bored them. But as I grew older and they knew me better, they came to have more sympathy with me and to understand my hidden meanings. Their nature is such that out relationship has been very intimate.”(Lionel Trilling). I’d add that sometimes and with some books we never outgrow our own limitations, ie, the book always look as boring as hell!
Edmundson also touches on a point very dear to me. A few years ago I attended a class on English Comparative Literature at Universidade de Letras in Lisbon. My teacher, Vicky Hartnack, introduced me to the New Criticism concept of “Close Reading”, which I’ve been following ever since, and I’ve been mentioning it ad nauseum in a lot of my reviews. To find out things about what I’m reading, I’ve to scrutinize the page in front of me with very exacting care (“new critical” stance).
Another one of Edmundson’s assertions with which I quite agree with is that TV Culture directly opposes Book Culture. At my present age I am just old enough to sense, with a surmounting panic that I really could waste my entire existence with a life caught up in TV Culture.
Edmundson also says that the ultimate test of a book, apart from the test of time, is the difference it would make in the way I conduct my life. Extreme I’d say. On second thoughts, maybe it’s not so extreme. I think Edmundson is on the right path. The older I get, the more I come to appreciate the spiritual imperative that what really matters is not to be passive (in front of the TV), but to be active (with a book in my hands). The kind of dialogue I can have with a book is something entirely different from the one I have with TV, if I can call it that (I'm talking about TV shows and the like here).
Another contention I hear a lot is “I don’t have time to read”. I bet the people who say this are still willing to watch at least an hour of TV a day. If you can find time for that surely you can find time to read. I work at least 50 hours a week, but I always find the time because I truly enjoy reading, even if it’s only 30 minutes before I go to sleep. “If only I could find the time to read” exists only in our heads. It’s not real.
One final piece of advice. Nowadays everyone talks about going digital. On top of that, people are also going terrible lazy. That’s what TV does to us all, and that’s why I don’t watch it. I only watch stuff I really want to see (movies, some series, Benfica's football matches, Opera). No point channel hopping when there is nothing worth watching on.