The modern world strongly equates the intelligent individual with the well-read individual. The hallmark of genius, as well as the supreme gateway to reputation and knowledge, is reading books, many books. Without having worked their way through an overwhelming amount of titles over the years, it’s hard to imagine someone arriving at any observations of importance. Apparently, there is no limit on how much we can read. Logically and hopefully, for every moment we do so we should be reading all the time and getting ever cleverer. By the day we die, the number of books that we have managed to read will tell us about everything we need to know about the depth and maturity of our minds.
This so-called maximalist reading theory enjoys tremendous cultural reputation. It is backed up by massive publishing and journalistic industries that constantly parade fresh titles before us and implies that if we did not hurry to read four of the major prize-winning books of this year as well as seven fascinating titles that have received ardent reviews in the Sunday supplements since March, we could quickly be left behind and condemned to a narrow and provincial mindset. As a result, our shelves are overburdened and our conscience is overwhelmed by how far out we are.
Yet we could pause to reflect on a fascinating feature of the pre-modern world in the midst of this pressure to eat our way through an ever-larger number of titles: it never puts people under any pressure to read very much at all.
Reading was held to be extremely significant, but it was entirely by the amount of new books one read. This was mainly not an economic point. Of course, the books were very costly, but this was not really the issue. What counted was to read a few books very well, not promiscuously squander one’s time on a vast number of volumes.
The pre-modern world led us to read so little because it was concerned with a question that modernity likes to dodge: what is the reading point? And it had responses. To take a supreme example, the importance of reading was found by Christians and Muslims in a very basic and narrow objective: the pursuit of holiness. To read was to attempt to approximate God’s mind. In each case, this meant that one book was to be held up as greatly and incomparably more important than the other and only one book, the Bible or the Koran. It was probably considered more important to read this book, repeatedly and with great attention, five or so pages every day than to hurry through a whole library every week in fact, reading widely would have been viewed with scepticism, since most other books would have to prove deceptive and distracting to some degree.
Similarly, one was intended to concentrate in the Ancient Greek world on the close knowledge of only two books: the Odyssey of Homer and his Iliad, since they were considered the perfect repository of the Greek Code of Honor and the best guides to military and civil action. The theory of reading came much later, in England in the 18th century, to concentrate on Virgil’s Aeneid. Almost by heart, to know this single long poem was all a gentleman wanted to pass as cultivated. It was seen as eccentric to read even more and also a little unhealthy.
In early visual representations of one of the heroes of Christian scholarship, St Jerome, who was by all accounts the supreme intellect of Christendom, who translated the Greek and Hebrew parts of the Bible into Latin, wrote a vast number of scripture commentaries, and is now the patron saint of libraries and librarians, we can pick up the minimalist approach to reading. But amid all his scholarly efforts, there is a fact that stands out when it comes to showing where and how St Jerome worked: there are almost no books in his famous study. Strikingly, less than an average modern eight-year-old, the most knowledgeable and reflective intellectual of the early church seems to have read. St Jerome tends to be the proud owner of about ten books in all to suit the depiction by Antonello da Messina!
In this minimalist, pre-industrial approach to reading, the modern world has significantly parted ways. We also followed a mantra of the Enlightenment that runs in a very different direction, claiming that there should be no limit to how much we read because in response to the question of why we read, there is only one reason that will always be adequately detailed and ambitious: we read to know more. To understand God or to practise civic virtue or to relax our minds, we’re not reading. The whole of human life, the complete inventory of the planets and the entirety of celestial history, we are reading to learn. In the concept of totalizing knowledge, we are mutual believers; the more books we have produced and digested, the closer we will be to knowing everything.
The sheer scale of ambition helps to understand why library depictions in the Enlightenment era depicted large and endless learning palaces and indicated that if money had not been an item, the world would have been designed to ring.
We may not be conscious of how indebted we are to the Enlightenment philosophy of reading, but within the publishing industry, within the way books are marketed to the public at school and in shops, and within our own guilty reactions to the demand to read more its maximalist legacy is present.
We may also jeopardise an observation: we are not especially pleased with this exhaustive approach to reading. We are drowning in books, we never have time to re-read one and as compared to our peers and what the media has deemed respectable, we seem fated with a lifelong feeling of being under-read.
We might dare to ask a very old-fashioned question in order to relieve and simplify our lives: what am I reading for? And this time we could parcel off a much more limited, focused and useful target rather than answering ‘in order to know everything.’ For example, we may decide that while society as a whole might be searching for complete knowledge, what we really need and want to do is collect knowledge that will be beneficial to us as we lead our own lives. To direct our reading from now on, we could settle on a new mantra: we want to read in order to learn to be happy. Nothing less and no more.
Much of the pressure to read endlessly, copiously and spontaneously begins to fade with this fresh, far more targeted ambition in mind. Suddenly, we have the same option that was once available to St Jerome; we may only have a dozen books on our shelves, but we do not feel mentally undernourished or deprived in any way.
We won’t need to try every book published this season once we realise that we are reading to be happy. On titles that better describe what we consider to be the constituent parts of contentment, we should zero in. So for starters, we’re going to need a few main books that illustrate our psyches to us that teach us how families work and how they can work better, that take us through how to find a job you can enjoy and how to develop the confidence to develop our opportunities
We’re going to need some books that talk about love and friendship, sexuality and wellness. We’re going to want books on how to fly, how to love, how to give thanks, and how to forgive. We’re going to search for books that will help us remain calm, fight despair and reduce our fears. Finally, we’re going to look for books that instruct us gently on how to mitigate regret and learn to die well.
With these priorities in mind, we’re not going to need a boundless library, we’re not going to have to keep up with publishing schedules desperately. The more we appreciate what reading is for us the more personal relationships with only a few works can be enjoyed. Our libraries should be clear. Re-reading could become important instead of always broaching fresh content, confirming what we already know but seem to forget too much. It’s not a genuinely well-read person who has read a gigantic number of books, it’s someone who has let themselves be moulded, profoundly influenced by a very few well-chosen ones in their ability to live and die well.