As recounted in Boswell’s biography, Samuel Johnson offers the following advice on reading:
A man should read whatever his immediate inclination prompts him to… If a man begins to read in the middle of a book, and feels an inclination to go on, let him not quit it, to go to the beginning. He may, perhaps, not feel again the inclination.
And in another place he says, on the advice that books, once started, should be read all the way through:
This is surely a strange advice; you may as well resolve that whatever men you happen to get acquainted with, you are to keep them for life. A book may be good for nothing; or there may be only one thing in it worth knowing; are we to read it all through?
C.S. Lewis, likewise, advised that one’s reading should be divided into two categories: what one has to read and what one likes to read, with no room left over for “what one thinks one should read though they don’t want to” (unfortunately I don’t have the quote handy, or I would use the exact words).
I have long seen wisdom in this advice, but I have never been able to put it into practice. Sometimes I can read just part of a book, particularly if it is a book I do not own. And I can generally stop reading a book after a chapter or two if it doesn’t hold my interest. By and large, though, I feel a strong need to keep at a book once I’ve passed a certain threshold. To leave a book half read seems, to me, to be akin to leaving one’s bed unmade and one’s strewn about the floor (except that as a bachelor I am not really bothered by the latter). It introduces an element of untidiness and seeming disorder into one’s life; something left undone, that prevents me from fully embracing Dr. Johnson’s liberationist reading ethic.
I used to think that my own hesitations in this regard were solely a matter of my own vanity and perfectionism (as a book only “counts” as being read if I’ve finished it all). And there probably is more than a dollop of these vices in the mix. The idea that there might be something more going on was suggested to me, strangely enough, by an online article – long ago read, then forgotten, then recently remembered – about the author’s efforts to stop smoking:
for the career smoker, the act of smoking is something he’s grown up with, a gesture he’s repeated at least 20 times a day since late adolescence, if not earlier. Over time, this simple gesture of raising a lit cigarette to the lips, inhaling and blowing out becomes written into the smoker’s personality. It becomes, just as much as any other gesture of everyday life, a fundamental way of relating to the outside world. When one stops smoking, the change is abrupt. One becomes constantly, even obsessively aware of the cigarette’s absence. The feeling which accompanies this awareness is very specific. It’s the feeling you get trying to entertain yourself at a friend’s house when he’s away. You know you should make yourself at home but somehow you can’t.
It is this absence, in the end — and not the well-known phenomenon of withdrawal — that’s the real problem with quitting. Anybody can get through withdrawal, if they want to. Few, however, expect or are prepared for what comes next. It’s only when you quit that you discover what your fascination with smoking has all along been about: the everyday development and maintenance of moral life. Through the filter of a cigarette, the smoker orients himself to the outside world. It’s his very personal way of relating the outside world, the world of events, to the inside one, that of desire. And it is for this reason that, when the cigarette is taken away, the smoker’s moral life seems impoverished.
To put it oddly, reading is my smoking, a habit which helps me order and relate to the world. When I am “between books,” that is, when there is not a set book or two or three that I am working my way through, the world seems a tad less focused and adrift.
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