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.