Reading for Our Times

Dave Humphrey recently directed me to an article in Newsweek called “What to Read Now. And Why“, which lists fifty books that, in the judgement of the author, “open a window on the times we live in.”  Dave suggested that I should create a similar list of the books that I thought were most relevant to our present time, and I began to do so until I was confronted by a consideration that I think deserves a little attention.

I would suggest that the relevance of a book to our time has much more to do with the way that it is read than with the content of the book itself.  Though some books may certainly appear to be more or less relevant for a variety of reasons, any book of any artistic or intellectual value at all should be relevant in whatever era it happens to be read.  It will only require a reader who approaches it in a way that seeks and constructs these relevant moments in the text.

What readers of our time need, therefore, is not a list of books that may or may not be most relevant to us and to our era, though I have certainly written and read such lists of recommendations.  What readers need is the ability to approach each book with the attention and the concern that is necessary to determine its relevance through their reading.  They need the time to do this.  The need the critical tools to do this.  They need an intellectual community to encourage them as they do this.

The greatest obstacle to reading in this way, however, is the very thing that prompted the Newsweek article in the first place: lack of time.  The list is necessary, the article explains, because we live “in a world with precious little time to read.”  So, rather than make the time that is proper to reading well, it becomes necessary to create a list of the best books, something that everyone can read and feel that they have done their duty, something beside which readers can put their checkmarks.  Reading becomes reduced, like so much else in our era, to doing the homework that has been assigned to us.

So, I do not intend to assign you any such homework, at least not today.  Though I have endless numbers of book that I would recommend as having influenced me personally, I will offer no titles that I think would be essentially relevant to our present time.  I will only ask that you take the time to read well, whatever it is that you read.  Read slowly, and read attentively, so that everything you read will bear upon you and on the times in which you find yourself.  This, I think, is what it means to read well.

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11 comments
  1. Katerina said:

    But it takes me SO long to read anything! -Kat

  2. Amy said:

    Good points.

  3. Katerina,

    Let me share a little story. In the film Derrida, the filmmaker is touring Jacques Derrida’s house, which is filled with books. He asks whether Derrida has read all of these books, and Derrida replies, “No, but I have read some of them very, very well.” Which is to say, it is not how much or how fast you read but how well you read that makes reading valuable.

  4. Don’t think for a second you’re getting off this easy. I’ll be dealing with you on Tuesday.

    Also, totally agree 🙂

  5. Dave,

    I will bring my preliminary list. Perhaps you can help me fill it out.

  6. Curtis said:

    I am having a great amount of thoughts regarding this post. Probably because I love listening to music from the past, and second, on music from the past I have begun reading the biography of Jim Morrison/ The Doors, entitled ‘No One Here gets out Alive’. Music is one of those things, that needs to be read, if not by actual reading but by examination. I find music much more fascinating because unlike the idea of literature of say novels, which must recombine or re-contextualise through the reading to find their relevance, music and poetry retain their total primary context, even when simply being a cover- the times change, the music stays the same, and yet, the experience and impact of the music that is the same primality it was in say 62, is relevant in exactly the same way it is now, even when simply a cover. This is a really strange phenomenon to me.

    The only other Phenomenon I can think of is in regard to this idea is Bob Dylan covers, such as The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun or Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower- which gave these songs new relevance not by adjustment of message or context but of alterations in the compositions of their sounds and tempos. Which to me, is astounding, given the impact of their poetry, is only realised through the tone change rather than its initial tone.

  7. Curtis,

    I think that the distinction you are trying to make is between the text (song, poem, novel), its performance (concert, reading), and its reception. There are many theories about how these things interrelate, but I would say that there is as much performance in the reading of a novel as there is in the playing of a song, even if it is only a performance for the self. I would also say, therefore, that the recontextualization that you identify in a song cover is also operative every time someone reads a novel, or hears a song, or watches a play. Even if these things are written and recorded and appear to be “exactly the same” each time, they are necessarily recreated and reconstructed each time they are performed.

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