There follows the complete text of A. C. Grayling’s essay “Reading” from his book Meditations for the Humanist.

Reading

How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!   THOREAU

It seems that some doctors prescribe books instead of medications to patients suffering from depression, stress and anxiety. The patients are referred to a bibliotherapist — yes: bibliotherapist — who gives patients reading lists suited to their conditions. The treatment’s inspiration was the observation by librarians that borrowers are apt to say, on returning a book, that it did them good by making them laugh or by distracting them from their troubles.

There are almost too many things to say about this amazing fact. Cynics will ask, What sort of pass are we in that people need a doctor’s prescription to prompt them to read? When did we forget that reading is, for a thousand reasons, one of the chief resources of life? Will doctors turn to prescribing dinner for the hungry and sleep for the tired as the next step in the medicalisation of human existence, or as a response to the supine inability of people to think and act for themselves?

There is a tincture of justice in these exclamations, but it is not appropriately directed at doctors. It should rather be directed at the failure of our culture to show people what rich deposits of pleasure and usefulness, and what expansion of horizons, are to be found in reading. An education in reading includes guidance — very easy to give, it takes five minutes (much less if you say, ‘Ask a librarian,’ which is excellent advice) — on how to find any required book or kind of book. And just a little experience as a reader grants access to the great country where one flies as an eagle over the history, comedy, tragedy and variety of human experience, at every point garnering much, if the reading is attentive, from the abundance on offer.

The key is ‘attentive’. The best thing any education can bequeath is habits of reflection and questioning. Reading can be a passive affair, and entertainment leaving no impression on the mind beyond a pleasant present distraction. Many books are skillfully written to demand no more, and there is nothing wrong with that. But for anything more, reading has to be an activity, not a passivity. It is hard to define what makes good books good, because good books come in so many different kinds, but one thing common to most of them is that they make readers think and feel, elevating or disturbing them, and making them see the world a little differently as a result. ‘We find little in a book but what we put there,’ Joseph Joubert said. ‘But in great books, the mind finds room to put many things.’

Reading does not automatically make people wiser or better. When it has that effect it is because readers have done the work themselves, quarrying the materials from their response to the printed page. But apart from practical experience of life, which is everyone’s chief tutor, scarcely anything compares with books as the mine where that quarrying can begin. To read is to enter other points of view; it is to be an invisible observer of circumstances which might never be realised in one’s own life; it is to meet people and situations exceeding in kind and number the possibilities open to individual experience. As a result, reading not only promotes self-understanding, it equips one with insights into needs, interests and desires that one might never share but which motivate others, in this way enabling one to understand, and tolerate, and even to sympathise with, other people’s concerns. As an extension of how this informs one’s behaviour towards others, it is also the basis for civil community and the brotherhood of man.

I keep a photograph on my desk of the Philosophical Library in the Strahof Monastery in Prague. Taken from the upper gallery, it captures the tranquil beauty of that deep room, filled up with light from the clerestory windows in the right-hand wall. The photograph shows one long bar of sunshine lying across a tier of book-shelves, illuminating the richness of the leather bindings ranked there. Below, on the ground floor, three desks are disposed at comfortable intervals, among them an ingenious reading wheel any scholar would envy.

The scene is wonderfully expressive of everything to do with books, and the reading of books, with study and thought, with books as the distillations of time and man’s endeavours — even the world itself, brought into reflective equilibrium and clothed in quietness and retreat. If, off to one side, there were a closet with a bed in it and wherewithal to make tea, one would not mind being locked in there, and the keys thrown away.

A cynic might proclaim this beautiful and evocative library a mere dead mortuary for books, a past curiosity for dull-eyed tourists to glance at, a selling-point for the postcards that now represent its only product. But I think it is a work of art, and represents something opposed to the uneasy, fickle, failing norm of most human life and its compromises.

Philosophical Hall, Strahof Library (clearly not Professor Grayling’s photograph)   © 2011 David Coleman

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A library is like a hive storing honey, part of the best, sweetest and most nourishing exudate of human experience. A commentator on Vergil’s Georgics Book IV, which tells of honey-bees and lost love, remarked that only four things withstand time — gold, sunlight, amber and honey. Some archaeologists digging in Greece once came across an ancient amphora filled to the brim with honey over 2,000 years old. They took a little each day to spread on their bread at breakfast. After a time they noticed that there was something at the bottom of the amphora. When they looked, they found that it was the body of an infant.

It is an extraordinarily touching thought that the mourning parents of this child, so long ago, buried it in honey to preserve it forever. The action speaks of great wealth, and great love.

The honey story is of course a good one, but its connection with reading is a bit tenuous. The library as a sticky series of honey pots? Maybe we can think of the ideas in books sticking to their readers — in order to remember you have to read actively, as Professor Grayling says. But the activity doesn’t end when you close the book; you also have to reflect on what you’ve read after the event — licking your sticky fingers? Memories are formed by periodic reexamination of an event, an exercise which reinforces the synaptic pathways in the brain, thus foregrounding that particular item.

One might nigglingly object that “exudate” is an overly fancy word to describe either honey or books. It’s also an inaccurate term in both contexts. Nevertheless Professor Grayling writes well and clearly. His latest book, The History of Philosophy (Penguin Press, November 2019) is an inspiring eagle-flight over the world’s philosophies. My philosophy-student granddaughter reports that it is a rich quarry.

For a rational, liberal, secular-humanist like me Professor Grayling’s heart is in the right place — right (or really left) on his sleeve. “Faith”, one of his brief chapters, includes this rousing sentence “Religious belief, meanwhile, whatever it might do in comforting the fearful in the dark, has always and everywhere brought war, intolerance and persecution with it, and has distorted human nature into false and artificial shapes.” I find myself growing more and more intolerant of intolerance.

“Reading” is reprinted without any permission at all: let’s just say that it’s for criticism and review!

I did a piece on bibliotherapy a few years ago.