There's Reading, and Then There's Reading

I’ve always thought of myself as a reader. When I was in grade school, one of my parents’ preferred punishments for my childhood misdeeds was confining me to my room for a specified period of time. But it was hardly a punishment – I sat in my room and read, which is fine with me. So they modified the punishment – I was confined to my room and not allowed to read. Since they’ve both died, I’m comfortable saying out loud that during those times I lay on my bed, with my back to the door and the book I was reading shielded (I was convinced) from their sight when they passed by the room to check on me. Surely they knew that I was reading, but I don’t remember them calling me on it.

I don’t remember many of the things I read when I was young. There was the Hardy Boys series. And Tom Swift. Eventually I moved on to science fiction writers like Heinlein, Herbert, and Asimov. But I missed what some might call the classics. In fact, I might be the only person around who managed to get through an otherwise advantaged public school education in the United States without reading Shakespeare – between my junior and senior years I moved from a school that featured Shakespeare in the senior year to a school that covered Shakespeare in the junior year. Actually, that’s not quite true – we discussed Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in my senior year English class, but the professor introduced the discussion, “Since I’m sure everyone here has read the play already and perhaps even seen the movie, we’ll just have our discussion.” I didn’t have the nerve to admit the lack in my education.

All of this comes to mind because I just began reading Robert Gottlieb’s Avid Reader. My time with the book thus far prompts the title of this piece. I admit to being more than a little intimidated. In fact, I find myself reluctant to say “I’m a reader” now, just as I found myself reluctant to say “Yes, I play guitar” after we moved to Nashville in the late 1990s. Gottlieb’s discussion of the books and authors he read in high school and college puts me to shame.

I’m not saying that everyone should read the classics, though I do appreciate Bernard Lonergan’s (and David Tracy’s) appreciation for the symbiotic relationship between cultural classics and the cultures that they inform. I would say that most reading enriches the reader – what one gains from the practice of reading is more than the knowledge of particular books that one has read. And there are many books outside the realm of the so-called classics that deserve to be read, books the reading of which would broaden the reaches of our culture immensely, and for the better.

So, what I take from this reading of the first chapters of Gottlieb’s book is much more inspiration than intimidation – he inspires me to continue the reading I’ve been doing since retirement – reading not just in philosophy and literary essays, but also in literature. (Not, at least so far, in poetry – I remain tone-deaf there.) Feeling inspired is much better than feeling merely intimidated. I can deal with that.

So I continue to read, thinking that I’ll need to add still more books to my to-be-read pile. As I’ve said before, that pile will continue growing right up until the time that I die. But I’d much rather die surrounded by such a pile than sitting around wondering what I might read next.

As long as I’m here – and on a somewhat different but still related topic – how can I have gotten this far along in life without learning about and appreciating Rosa Luxemburg? That’s a matter for another post after I’ve made my way through more of her writing.