Reading Great Books and Living the Good Life

Robert Woods, Past Fellow

It might seem like an unusual request when death is looming, but it's recorded that the brilliant Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy, several hours before his death, asked his assistant to bring him a number of books. He requested the Bible, The Works of Shakespeare, and the last edition of his own book entitled, The Circle of Reading.

What does it say about Tolstoy, that books were on his mind at the obvious end of his physical life? It certainly indicates that reading was a central part of his life long before the end. For those of us who love books, this is really not so odd a solicitation. This request at the very end of life makes perfect sense to many of us.

Let me just say it in the clearest terms: I love books. I love reading. I enjoy books so much that I actually have a few books on my shelves that are about books. I even own a few books that are about reading books. I ask for your forgiveness in advance of any excessive or extreme comments in this little essay. I begin with the up front confession that I am a "bibliophile," which means "lover of books." If you suffer from this mental order, you will identify a great deal with what I'll be saying. But if you consider it even possible that reading is a waste of time, I'm glad you weren't deterred by my title here, and are still with me. While I cannot identify with the person who is not passionate about reading, I can understand it. Reading, like most other inclinations of the soul, is an acquired taste.

Years ago, I remember reading that, tragically, some people are born without taste-buds, or the ability to taste various flavors. Many of us with normal palates never eat enough of the right foods to develop a refined sense of taste discrimination. The same is true of reading good books and reading them well.

Personally, my mental appetite is so immense that I rarely leave the house without a book. If I do, it's all right because there are always some books in my glove compartment or in the trunk. Sometimes in very long lines (when others are getting impatient and disgruntled) I'll open the book in my hand and make my way through a few paragraphs. I also read with a pencil in hand. You never know when you are going to read something that you'll need to track down later.

If you belonged to a Book of the Month Club, and not only bought a selection every month, but actually read it as well, in fifty years of adult life, you'd read through six hundred books. That initially may seem like a lot, but it is a small fraction of the number of new books that are published each year, and it is an extraordinarly tiny percentage of the good and useful books that have ever been written. At even that pace, would you find the books that would make the most difference in your life? The saddest truth is that most people don't even come near that modest pace of reading. It's quite sobering for a bibliophile to realize that many Americans will live fifty years or more of adulthood and not even read a great book for each year of life given to them as a gift. An average person may mentally consume over a hundred thousand hours of television and radio instead! Why expose ourselves so extensively to intellectual cotton candy, while missing the nurturing resources of true genius and masterly insight?

We bibliophiles are endlessly frustrated that we can't read more books in our lifetimes than we will have time to get through, reading as much as we can. But we really shouldn't fret about matters of quantity. Reading great books is like eating a great meal. There are some things you want to enjoy slowly. In a great book, the words, ideas, and experience need time to echo in your mind and soul. With books, it's really better to be a gourmet than just a gourmand. A few great ones will benefit us much more than many average ones.

Great books can support and parallel many aspects of the cultivated life. It could be easy to make the case that reading a good novel that is several hundred pages in length can itself, as an act, and regardless of the book, help cultivate the virtue of patience. But so can sitting in the waiting room of a doctor's office, or standing in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. So maybe I shouldn't pursue that point any further. The real benefits of reading flow out of the content. Encountering various virtues and vices in the lives of fictional characters can help us powerfully to refine our own development of virtues and avoidance of vices. Seeing the behaviors, and being privy to the thoughts, of characters in books can deepen our own understanding of human nature. Great descriptive writing can make us more sensitive to the details of our experience, and the beauties of our surroundings.

I grew up in an "unbookish" home. What few books that happened to be on shelves gathered dust, not readers. My wife, by contrast, grew up in a very different environment. As a child, she had a standing order to read or she might be given a less pleasant chore. My current family is bookish, almost to a fault. As our daughters were growing up, making a run to the local bookstore or library was among our favorite family activities. Because of all these trips to the bookstore, there are books in every room of our house. I suppose that, like anything else, even buying books or reading in excess could be a bad thing. In theory. Of course, I would find it very hard to confess this to be a real wrongdoing.

The American novelist Walker Percy once suggested that the greatest interest we can develop within our children is an interest in reading. My wife and I began reading to our children as infants, and continued to encourage reading with a story before bedtime. In addition, after the rituals of evening, including a gentle kiss goodnight, they began to read the books themselves. Percyıs thinking was simple. The ability to read, in additional to the gifts of books themselves, is a treasure that keeps giving throughout a person's life. The ancient philosopher Cicero once remarked that "A room without books is like a mind without thoughts." We could by extension infer that a mind that has not been impacted by great books is like a dusty, bare shelf.

With all due respect to the human race as a whole, I have found a few books far greater company than some people I've met over the years. Many great books have a depth and breadth that too many people seem to lack. For those of us who love books, we don't see them as mere artifacts of paper on a shelf. We come to see some of them as dear friends.

Maybe the Scottish novelist, George MacDonald said it best when he once recounted what it felt like to return to his study: "The familiar faces of my books welcome me. I threw myself into my reading chair and gazed around me with pleasure. All my old friends present?there in spirit, ready to talk with me any moment when I was in the mood, making no claim upon my attention when I was not."

I wish for us all that we will come to have more friends in the world of books and find ourselves more frequently than ever"in the mood" for what they can give us. What we learn as a result can position us better for the truly good life we all want to live.

(Editor's Note: If you haven't read a good book in a while, or are looking for something that can provide some illumination, you'll find some useful recommendations elsewhere right here in the Philosopher's Corner, or in our Wisdom Warehouse. Happy reading!)


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