05 November, 2006

On Affliction and Reading

I have a confession to make—I hate reading.

Now, I know my readers will balk at this. They will think it a joke, or worse, a pose. Sadly not. I can assure you in all sincerity that I have indeed been doomed to a lifetime of doing what I loathe. There are two questions, then: first, why do I hate reading? And second, why, if I hate reading, do I read?

I dislike reading because it is an immense effort, and ultimately quite boring. It takes a long time: even at a rate of a page per minute, which is my normal upper limit, a good-sized book will take 3 or 4 hours of solid attention. Unlike so many lovers of literature, I resolutely fail to 'lose myself in a story'—I just can't do it. I am too easily distracted by the surface of words—a postmodern malaise, if you want to put it that way. A word or a phrase, a collocation, will set my mind turning tangentially to the narrative or argument, managing or imagining an anagram, disliking the syntax, hearing the genesis of a poem, and so on. So, why do I read? Well, I like books; I like having read. My analogy is to the Pyramids: great monuments, sure, very impressive and all—but a bugger to build. Reading may be a terrible bore, but the result is worth it.

For these reasons, I find little in common with professional accounts of reading practices, which are quite fashionable now. Academic reading stems from the scholarly humanist habits of the Quattrocento, while the reading of literature in one's spare time dates back (in England) to the types of books written in 1580 or so, the first such lay classic being John Lyly's Euphues (1579). My approach to reading, however, is more mediaeval in character. Consider this passage on the Benedictine Rule, from Southern's Making of the Middle Ages:
The Rule laid down how the reading was to be done: the monk was to read the whole book and read it straight through—there was to be no 'skipping', no laying ot it aside and taking up something else, nothing light-hearted about it. It was part of a discipline, an exercise in a penitential life. The part of the Rule which regulates the monastic reading comes, significantly, in the chapter on manual labour: the reading envisaged by the Rule was a painful business—it was meant to be.
Southern is referring to Rule 48, 'Of Daily Work', which adds:
Above all, let one or two of the seniors be appointed to go about the monastery during the time that the brethren devote to reading and take notice, lest perhaps a slothful brother be found who giveth himself up to idleness or vain talk, and doth not attend to his reading, and is unprofitable, not only to himself, but disturbeth also others.
Similarly, Peter of Celle could write an essay titled 'On Affliction and Reading' (circa 1160, I think). He compares the monk's chamber (and there is a wordplay here between cella, chamber, and Celle) to 'a market where the butcher sells small and large amounts of his flesh to God who comes as a customer'. Just as the bodily affliction sacrifices real flesh, so reading sacrifices spiritual flesh, the life of the mind. For Peter, reading is a hard monastic devotion—but it is also a consolation:
I consider a room without reading to be a hell without consolation, a gibbet without relief, a prison without light, a tomb without a vent, a ditch swarming with worms, a suffocating trap. A room without reading is the empty house of which the gospel speaks, where the nocturnal and noonday devils assault the idle hermit with as many thrusts of useless and harmful thoughts as there are hours and moments in the day and night.
Reading is also an argumentative weapon, a training in martial arts: 'Take projectiles from your bookcase so that when you are struck you may strike back at the one who struck you and force him to speak'. I can empathise with this as well: perhaps a better analogy than the Pyramids is the rigorous physical training of a professional soldier. In fact, the soldier metaphor was common in the Middle Ages—compare the statement of Cassiodorus (551 AD) that 'Every word of the Lord written by the scribe is a wound inflicted on Satan'.

However you phrase it, the notion of reading as discipline and labour is far more congenial to me than that of reading as a leisure activity, or as Romantic escapism. The greatest satisfaction I derive from reading is that sense of accomplishment—of having overcome terrible hardship.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Now, I know my readers will balk at this.

Actually not, as far as I am concerned. Because the more it goes, the more I find it hard to be gripped by a book. Some years ago, I used to finish everything I had started. Now there are loads of partly read books in my place and elsewhere. Maybe I should go back to Le Comte de Monte-Cristo, or even Enid Blyton.

But you, Conrad, why don't you go back to the antique habit of reading aloud? Never know, it might help to overcome this hatred if you get some fun out of it. Isn't it worth trying? I suggest that you start with Nabokov's Ada — the only way, I found, to take some pleasure out of such a lengthy piece of gibberish.

As far as I know you are not a reincarnation of Saint Ambrose and nowadays there should be no Saint Augustine to find strange — if not suspicious — that you read "with your voice and your tongue being silent". On the contrary, people might think that you became a bit lunatic if they see you reading a book aloud while being all by yourself. But after all why not, if it is another one of many amusing unreligious experiences.

(By the bye, if you dislike reading, you do seem to like writing...)

Conrad H. Roth said...

Ah, my dear Sutor. Reading aloud, yes; well I read to my wife, and she to me, but I suppose that hardly counts now, does it? Ada is a wonderful book, I hear it in my head even when silent, just like that other lengthy piece of gibberish, Finnegans Wake. As for Ambrose, I fear I too would have to read aloud if confronted with a spaceless and unpunctuated text. Peter Saenger and Ivan Illich both have fine passages on the silencing of reading during the 12th century, and Peter of Celle himself warns his reader to avoid any aural distraction:

"It is necessary to lessen or eliminate all the annoyances of reading, just as an attentive nurse quiets a screaming, crying, nursing baby by offering it her breast."

I fear reading aloud would slow the process too much for serious work--but yes, like most other human beings I do enjoy the sound of my own voice, and fortunately so does Mrs. Roth. The best author to read aloud is Salvador Dali, he has such a majestic, oratorical prose.

I fear I enjoy writing rather too much; many apologies for this logorrhea.

Anonymous said...

Contrary to your expectations you now have three readers of your blog (perhaps avid readers in our own right) who understand where you are coming from perfectly. The only books from which I derive serious pleasure these days are books from which I am learning something in particular. I was once adept at curling up with a novel, but I now find the practise of escapism infuriating. It is not enough to merely learn new ways of lengthening my own vocabulary! I wish to learn in earnest!

To that end, are you partial to literary criticism at all? I am in the process of enrolling in an MA in English Literature at the moment actually, and one of the (many) reasons that I have for doing so is to regain some enjoyment from the practise of reading. For me, reading a novel is infinitely more enjoyable if I can turn it into a scientific, methodical exercise. Jane Austen has never been so beautiful as when she is reduced to a series of near-algebraic formulae, and a concatenation of abstruse philosophical considerations.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Gosh, this is contrary to my expectations.

"I now find the practise of escapism infuriating."

"Jane Austen has never been so beautiful as when she is reduced to a series of near-algebraic formulae, and a concatenation of abstruse philosophical considerations."

Gosh, I feel like I'm staring in a mirror! I can't say I've ever been tempted to read Austen, at least not since I put down Pride and Prejudice after a hundred pages of not concentrating, but the general point holds. Heavens, why else would I regard the Wake as the great book of all time? What a delight that, as you say, three voices have cried with mine in the wilderness!

Anonymous said...

Of course reading to your wife counts! And wait until you have half a dozen children all asking for their bedtime story! After the third Winnie the Pooh in a row Mrs Roth might come and pull a blanket over her fast* asleep husband.....

Funny, a lot of people have been saying a lot of good about Ada. I've given it a try but, frankly, it has been very hard to immerse myself into these 700 pages. (But what would you expect from a concrete engineer?) It looked as if I was drowning, going nowhere, and apparently accepting to be mocked by an author taking much pleasure in poking fun at his readers. But since your are another one who speaks in a positive manner about this book, maybe I should give it another chance.

Ah, reading, what a waste of time!

* I don't know how fast, though

Anonymous said...

Conrad, were you the one saying both “Gosh, I feel like I'm staring in a mirror!” and “The best author to read aloud is Salvador Dali”? I would find it rather funny as on the page to which I've given a link in the previous comment it is still possible to read this malevolent prose about Ada (please forgive the highly sinful pleasure of hearing my own voice):
Si on imagine que tout cela a été écrit par une espèce de Salvador Dali surréaliste en mal de pitreries, sans doute peut-on trouver que, somme toute, c’est assez comique. Surtout si on le déclame, avec tout le sérieux requis, d’une voix imperturbable.

Now you may not believe me if I go on saying that I've read Salvado Dali aloud to Mrs Sutor, but it is the truth! If my memory serves me right, it was an excerpt from Les Cocus du vieil art moderne in which the self-confessed madman was lambasting the architect Le Corbusier with such vitriolic words that it was a delight of the mind to read it. (Are we a really nasty species?) Maybe I should try to find the passage in a little red book book at home.
(Incidentally, I have a sudden doubt about “one of many amusing unreligious experiences”: can ‘experience’ take an -s for the plural? Baffling English, which can have one species and two fish...)

Conrad H. Roth said...

Or, les joies ne cessent jamais! Another Dali fan? I had to look up 'pitreries', I admit. The Cocus is a wonderful little bonbon--I quoted it myself here--its most delicious spite perhaps reserved for Piet "Pet" Mondrian. My own favourite is the incomparable Secret Life, by which Mrs. Roth was entertained endlessly; but I own and have enjoyed all of his works, even his novel, Hidden Faces. (Remember, though, Dali was not a self-proclaimed madman: rather, "The only difference between myself and a madman is that I am not mad.")

Re: Ada, maybe the French translation is bad?

And, yes, experience can be either a 'count-noun' or a 'mass-noun': "so much experience", "so many experiences" are both valid, though slightly different in connotation. 'Experiences' was the better choice in your sentence. (Confusingly, English can have 'several fishes' as well.)

Anonymous said...

Yes, I quite like Dali. His self-centered rhetoric would be unbearable if found in the mouth of nearly every human being on this planet, but it in his case I found it quite exhilarating. (Maybe he wasn't totally human though.)

Yes, you are right in saying that he hasn't really claimed to be mad -- but not far from it... During a European tour with Mrs Sutor many, many years ago, I have visited his house in Figueres — or was it just a museum? — and it was hard to admit that the guy who did all that was perfectly sane.

Re: Ada, maybe the French translation is bad?
I'm afraid my English isn't good enough to let me read Nabokov in the language he adopted! But I don't think that the French translation is too bad since Vladimir Vladimirovich is said to have known French very well — I presume he could have written his books either in Russian, in English or in French — as well as having been particularly mindful of the translation of his writings, even articles that he insisted on correcting himself before any publication.

(And thanks for the experiences!)

Anonymous said...

well, well, someone who reads to his wife, the unmet friend perhaps? a good essay, Conrad. i liked this one.

Languagehat said...

I too read to my wife. But just so you don't get the feeling the whole world is a self-reflection, I was astounded by your revelation. I find it hard even to grasp the concept of "not liking reading" (for an intellectual, obviously). I've spent all my spare time reading for as long as I've known how; I carry books with me everywhere; if I don't have anything else, I will read the proverbial backs of cereal boxes. I stand with a book in my hand as I piss. Not like to read? Why, a man might just as well not like to breathe or eat! Er, not that there's anything wrong with that, but it did set me back on my heels. Now I'm curious about the kinds of writing preferred by these two different species of readers, since it seems there is considerable agreement among you odilegs or legiphobes. I, on the other hand, was barely aware of Dali as a writer. At least we can all enjoy Joyce!

John Cowan said...

I too am stunned at the concept of erudite people who hate reading, the process. I could never have imagined such a thing without the testimony of this page.

As for Joyce, I learned him at my father's knee, quite literally; as for Ada, I loved it; as for reading to my wife, I do it as often as I can (last night was a particular winner!)

Conrad H. Roth said...

Well, it's a relief to know there are some sane people left! I had a feeling John and Steve would be good candidates... (and thanks, Gawain, I know you're in the latter camp too!)

"I stand with a book in my hand as I piss."

Ah well, I read while walking to work! (It's slow, though: I manage about 5 pages tops in the 20 minutes.) I'm fairly indifferent to breathing also, as it happens--it's just one of those necessities. I do enjoy eating, though.

"Now I'm curious about the kinds of writing preferred by these two different species of readers"

I think the general conclusion is that I prefer difficult books (it's a hassle anyway, might as well be a rewarding one) and elaborate, Baroque prose (so as to enjoy the surface more when I'm daydreaming). Any reasonably well-read person, even without having read the Varieties, could probably fill in most of the blanks with these specifications.

Anonymous said...

Aaah! at least some people who behave according to Conrad's expectations!

I cannot speak for him, but I guess that even when he says he “hates reading”, he's not against the fact of receiving the information contained in a book. Maybe he's more against the fastidious process of having to concentrate for such a long time, turning pages, going back a few lines if his mind has started wandering during a more boring passage, knowing in advance that he will have to put down the book on several occasions, etc. If there was a trick to absorb the content of a book in a second or two — like in science-fiction —, maybe he wouldn't mind doing it.

And maybe I understand him because I'm lazy, and because some reads seem to be a big effort. Though I wouldn't say that I “hate” reading. On the contrary, I quite like it, and probably too much as it has too often cut me off the “real” life. But I've just noticed that, as the years passed by, I've become fussier and fussier about the things I appreciate reading. Quite often — and maybe most people would agree with me on this point — I see myself checking how many pages are left on the right-hand side, and wishing that I had reached the end already, even if the book is deemed good enough.

A few years ago, I enjoyed reading an article titled Contre la lecture (Against reading). It was written by Patrick Besson, a French author who may sometimes be seen as a kind of buffoon, but who, though joking, had some “arguments” that rang a distant bell. Like :
- Ces campagnes en faveur de la lecture, c'est un scandale. « La rage de lire » porte bien son nom : le lecteur est un enragé, c'est-à-dire un fou. A-t-on jamais fait des campagnes en faveur du tabac, de l'alcool, de la drogue ?
- Personne ne m'a dit que je lisais trop, alors que s'il y a une chose que je faisais trop, c'était celle-là, la preuve : je ne faisais plus rien d'autre. Je n'avais pas le temps ! Les livres ont mangé ma vie comme ils mangeront la vôtre, si vous ne trouvez pas le moyen d'arrêter de lire.
- Ces heures, ces journées, ces vies englouties dans tout ce papier inutile.
(Sorry for not even bothering to translate. I wouldn't like to offend anybody.)
It's certainly a bit far-fetched, if one takes it literally, but is it totally untrue?

And regarding other matters, gentlemen, I hope we won't go any further in the description of some aspects of our private life!
(By the way, isn't it funny to realise that a lot of us read texts to our wives? Poor things... maybe they say ‘yes’, with an unnoticeable sigh, just to please us...)

Conrad H. Roth said...

Yes, Siganus understands; I have wondered about the "instant upload" question, but concluded that it would rob me of the satisfaction of overcoming difficulty, so I think (rather masochistically) I would be inclined against it.

Mrs. Roth was as surprised as I was that there are so many other uxoralectors out there. Her possible sigh at the suggestion of being read to is, I think, drowned out by the gales of laughter issuing from her lips upon hearing those deliciously ridiculous words of the Secret Life.

Sir G said...

i will think about it for some time to come, I am sure (as I have thought about it every since you first mentioned this affliction in an email).

I like reading, but perhaps it comes from the how: i don't speed read (though I can) because I want the delectation of rolling the words in my mind (or mouth, i sometimes do read outloud) -- if the text is well written, of course; but then it invariably is, for i refuse to read for meaning if the style doesnt please me; which is why I have not read many great works - i didnt like the style, the style, you see, did not warrant the time. and i refuse to be bored. and besides, i am a lazy aesthete: an afternoon spent under a tree, with a book, and a pleasant breeze. why would i want to do anything else?

the only reading which bores me and with which i yet persist is the financial reports I have to read from time to time, it is always invariably badly written. but that's hard to speed read, every sentence is pregnant with numbers and implications for the pocket. oh.

Siganus Sutor said...

What on earth is an “uxoralector”?
A variety of dinosaur? A torture instrument related to the tripalium? A genetically modified primate ‘who’ acquired the capacity to read without getting bored, ever?

Anonymous said...

Ah... given the subject of this post, how did I forget this one?

Here's a book which succeeded in getting me stuck: The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink, a German judge. The notion of guiltiness running across these pages — the notion of individual and historical guiltiness — has left a long-lasting impression in my mind. I re-read them every now and then.

It starts with the story of a fifteen-year-old boy who reads books to his lover, a grown-up woman he met by accident. They follow an immutable ritual: he goes to her place, he reads, she listens, they have a shower, they make love. Hadn't he liked reading already, it might have helped.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Gawain, I think this is begging for an extended Heaven Tree post.

Sutor, sorry it was just something I made up on the spot (uxor=wife). And in regards to your story, yes indeed, it goes to show the trouble reading can get you into!

Anonymous said...

Ah, l'uxor, une fraction d'éternité...

Back to (mundane) reading matters, however: Der Vorleser has been translated into The Reader. I don't know German, despite a few years of forced teaching in secondary school, but it seems that there is a subtlety here that might be hard to anglicise. Would you agree that ‘vorlesen’ is ‘to read aloud’ while ‘lesen’ is “just” ‘to read’? (No need to give a lecture on this point!)
The French title is not Le lecteur — someone who reads —, but Le liseuri.e., primarily, someone who reads a lot, or who likes reading. Yes, who likes reading...

Anonymous said...

Re: Ada, maybe the French translation is bad?

Actually I forgot that there has been a book about the (true) story of this translation: Deux étés, by Erik Orsenna, de l'Académie française.

Deux étés relate l'incroyable histoire des habitants d'une île entière qui bouleversent leurs vacances pour venir en aide au traducteur de Nabokov.
Lire*, juin 1997

From the same article:
j'ai lu très lentement en anglais Ada. J'ai été totalement ébloui par ce sommet absolu de la prose, son parcours sinueux, aérien, papillonnesque.
Aaargh! another one to like it! I'm afraid I will have to finish it one day, even if, like Ulysses tied to the mast, I should be tied to my bed. (I almost exclusively read lying on my bed — otherwise I just can't.)

* yes, Conrad, a magazine called “Lire”!

Conrad H. Roth said...

Nonsense, Sutor, you're making it up. Anyway, I'd just fall asleep if lying in bed; I hardly get enough slumbertime as it is. As for "Lire", I thought it was an Italian economics journal...

Anonymous said...

What am I supposed to make up? The fact that I lie down to read? Ha! ha! I wish you could see me...
I must confess that I do fall asleep from time to time, but then it is a perfect Darwinian way of selecting the boring from the not too boring, and a not too risky one.

Re: Lire. Indeed it was an Italian business magazine, but since the euro stepped in the name has been recycled by Bernard Pivot, the famous organizer of dictation contests. (Someone whose job, for years, has been reading, can you imagine?)

Conrad H. Roth said...

"Someone whose job, for years, has been reading, can you imagine?"

Only too well. My present job involves reading academic articles and summarising them for a bibliography. Now, can you imagine the torture?

Anonymous said...

« Now, can you imagine the torture? »

I suppose I can, to a certain extent. You can however say to yourself that it's something useful, something that'll last, something that you can be proud of.
Now, can you imagine the torture of having to detail RC components one after the other, hundreds, thousands of them, for years?

Anonymous said...

Rudely reading while lunching (nobody notices, far less takes offense) is necessary escapism in the company cafeteria where I slave: while eating boring food, surrounded by people who do not converse, merely gossip.

I like to read the Rhineland mystics in the cafeteria; and while driving, my husband and I while sitting in the passenger's seat have consumed tranquil hours in brutal traffic reading aloud to the driver. We currently escape the rat race via the British Navy: to the Napoleonic wars in Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey-Maturin series; and have greatly increased our theoretical knowlege of seamanship, as well. . .

Conrad H. Roth said...

I'm sure Eckhardt would love to be read over fish-sticks and peas. My great-great-grandfather was evidently fond of him. I'm more of a Boehme man myself, but there you go. I've never read O'Brian, but I find it delightfully unexpected that he began his career translating Simone de Beauvoir.

Anonymous said...

I've also heard about people reading In Search of Lost Time to their wife in bed. Must be another one of these urban legends.

sh4dow said...

i just stumbled across this posting of yours while i was searching for more information about you and found what you wrote somewhat comforting and unsettling at the same time.

comforting because i often think to myself "i really should know more" - and to know more, i should of course read more. it's good to know that even somebody as obviously well-read as you is annoyed by the time that reading takes.

i also asked myself the question "why do it?" and one aspect is what you mentioned - being "armed with words". but to me, the quite simple target of knowing more about the world/life is much more important. being able to have deeper discussions is nice but just being able to understand more is... well, i think it's what i live for.

but why did your posting feel unsettling to me? it reminded me of the fact that i will probably never be able to achieve the knowledge you or other people who spend a lot of their time educating themselves have because, as just said, it takes an incredible amount of time and there are so many other things of interest to me. but with those things i have the same problem. it really doesn't matter what you do, most things demand immense dedication if you want to become really proficient in them. or you have talent in that area. which i still hope to discover but i'm afraid i'm simply without.

and one more general thing i merely have a different opinion of, is the thing about discipline and labour. since i consider every moment of life as being very precious, i couldn't live with doing something just for the sake of doing it. well, you get pleasure out of overcoming a hardship but it still seems to me like the "why" you are doing something should be more important than "that" you are doing it. again, you could argue that the overcoming the hardship is the "why" but i hope you nevertheless know what i mean :)