reading just the right amount

“You read too much, my friend.”

The gravelly, hoarse voice belonged to the diminutive proprietor of the cafe in Athens where I had indeed been hanging around a while, reading (possibly my first pass through James Joyce’s Ulysses). It was November 1981 in the Plaka district below the Acropolis, and, like most people who use the phrase “my friend,” the cafe owner was not my friend: the place was busy and he wanted to get rid of me.

The moment has stuck with me. Can one read too much? How about too little? Is there a “right” amount of reading to do? What exactly is reading, anyway? Why do we do it?

There are two basic reasons to read:

  • for amusement
  • to learn

These are not mutually exclusive, for, as Aristotle observed, man is an animal that by nature likes to learn. According to him, for us humans learning is amusement.

But we’re all familiar with the distinction between “beach novels” or “escapist reading” and the more obligatory material that we have to read for school or work, and which we find to be a chore. Ought we to do more of this chore reading?

I believe that what makes reading a chore is when it is reading that someone else tells us to do, whether a teacher or a boss or some other authority. Reading we choose for ourselves can never be a chore in the same sense, no matter how difficult it might be. For people undertake difficult things all the time, and do so voluntarily and even with gusto, like running marathons or losing 50 pounds or learning to speak Russian. So then it’s a question of whether a “hard” book, a “learning” book, fits with one’s goals and aspirations. And that maybe is a more ticklish question, and the real reason that we don’t decide more often to tackle challenging books. We may not see the point, or we may associate such reading with the coercive structure of our formal schooling and have an aversion to any more it it. We may not have a clear idea of what our goals and aspirations are.

My own goal is to learn what’s really going on around me and in me. To me it seems clear that this is the path to making wiser decisions, becoming a better citizen of my community and the world, and living with fewer regrets. I have become persuaded that a truly liberal education, in the ancient sense, is the means to these ends, and so I take it up willingly and with gusto, regardless of how difficult I find it. Like a marathon, it’s a difficulty I choose, and so it is not a chore.

I expect to have much more to say about Education, which is one of the Great Ideas, in this blog. But for now I’ll just mention that I’ve come to believe that a proper education, a liberal education, as opposed to the technical and specialist training that our current institutions provide us with, is the key to making our society and our world a better place in every way. Every intractable problem that we face, from endless war to ethnic hatred to global warming, is due, I believe, to our lack of education.

Such being my belief, you can expect me, over time, to do what I can to promote liberal education for everyone from this, my little corner of the world.

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