Six virtues of good reading - and how to get the most out of books
Writer Damon Young reflects on the six virtues of good reading and how - from Batman to Orwell - we can get the most out of the books we love
I begin with the hunger of Albert Camus. The philosopher, novelist and playwright was born in French Algeria, living for much of his childhood in a home without electricity or running water. No oven - just an alcohol stove. No toilets - just holes in the masonry. And no father: his dad, Lucien, was killed by shrapnel when Camus was a baby. In The First Man, Camus wrote of his mother Catherine's "gnarled" hands, broken by years of scrubbing floors and wringing laundry. He described his grandmother's whip, the bull pizzle, used when the boy did not obey.
But this was no simple lament. Camus also offered his childhood pleasures: the Mediterranean sea, the smell of dirt in autumn rains, soccer matches, the stoic manliness of sailors, even the stink of urine after days of banal office labour in the lycée holidays.
One notable joy: borrowing books. The boys walked from the library to the main street, skimmed the text under streetlights, then ran to their homes to read under paraffin lamps. Camus wrote that he wanted "small type stretching all the way across tightly justified lines, filled to the brim with words and sentences, like those enormous rustic dishes you can eat at long and heartily without ever emptying them".
This is Camus' hunger. His urge to dash into the Algerian waves, or stand squinting into the tempest - this was how he read. "Devouring everything indiscriminately", he said he "swallowed the best at the same time as the worst."
Camus consumed words, and then digested their fantasies of comedy and heroism, metabolising them until they were him. His desire for life pushed him to fight, to hammer, to kick - and crack those cloth spines, with their scent of ink and glue.
When I picture my own boyhood and youth, it is, among other things, less savoury, an endless meal of these literary courses. Like Camus, I was as starved for text as I was for salt water swimming and fried chicken and, later, a glimpse of thighs under the classroom desk. This was not simply a calculated choice or neutral preference - it was an urge.
My point is that reading is not just a cognitive pursuit. It is intellectual, of course: an achievement of high abstraction. But entangled with the cerebral is the visceral: passion, ardour, avidity, yearning. We readers are rational animals - but animals nonetheless, whose whole bodies feed on words.
But why? Why drool for new releases, or remember The Magic Faraway Tree as delicious like an all-day gobstopper? Reading offers experiences. And this is no small thing, because life always involves experience: doing and undergoing, acting and reacting, speaking and replying, perceiving and being perceived. Existence is a to-and-fro between creature and environment, self and world, I and thou. Like all art, the written word provides an experience: sensation, emotion and thought, given new new unity. Some new shape, form, pattern.
While we often defend reading as the means to some end, these experiences are ends in themselves. And if reading does have handy perks, this is chiefly found in the experience. To recognise my own bizarre relationship to success, it's not enough to know about Comstock in Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying. I have to smell his dingy bookshop, listen to his screeching against money, feel the grease in his clothes, and watch his babyish cruelties to his girlfriend, Rosemary.
But these literary experiences aren't just there. The reader has to turn signs into sense. This is what Jean-Paul Sartre meant when he said: "There is no art except for and by others."
Reading is an act of liberty, in which we freely and knowingly take responsibility for turning words into worlds.So how do we read well? In The Art of Reading, I argue that this is best encouraged by virtues. This sounds stuffy, but the original Greek word areté, simply meant 'excellence': there were physical virtues, intellectual virtues, ethical virtues. It is a desirable quality of character, which had nothing to do with pearl-clutching righteousness or specialist expertise.
A virtue is a kind of whole-person bent: a knowing disposition to behave in the right way at the right time, which includes appetites, emotions, and reasons. Virtue is not inbuilt, but nor is it utterly foreign to us.
"Neither by nature… nor contrary to nature do the virtues arise in us," Aristotle writes, "rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit."
Not just any bent will do. Every virtue is a mean between extremes: a deficiency and an excess. For example, it is cowardly to give up on AS Byatt's brilliant short story 'The Chinese Lobster' because it prompts me to reconsider my prejudices about artists or academics. But it's foolhardy to keep reading if it will push me to suicidal ideation. Courage is the mean: I recognise the challenge to my biases, but continue because the story offers aesthetic rewards, intellectual discovery and emotional vibrancy.
I've divided up The Art of Reading into six virtues which encourage good reading: curiosity, patience, courage, pride, temperance, justice. The point is not to carve a stone tablet of the virtues, but to share my vision of reading at its best; reading that affords the most subtle, vivid, varied literary experiences, over a lifetime.
What might this look like? Here is perhaps my favourite: curiosity.
Curiosity is not a classical virtue, but it's vital for excellent reading. As David Hume argued, curiosity is pleasure in intellectual effort; the joy so many of us feel, when exercising our minds. So it's not study for professional duty, or the aesthetic buzz of fine prose. It's a very specific cognitive reward. And what gratifies curiosity is not banal fact - things can be true but trivial. Curiosity requires seemingly important and unusual discovery, if only to maintain attention.
A fine example is the Argentinian author Jorge Borges, who was always weaving from book to book, genre to genre, showing the ties between them. In one essay alone he moves from Cicero, to Blaise Pascal, to Thomas Huxley, to Lewis Carroll.
In this way, curiosity broadens our outlook. What we first see as a stand-alone achievement, is often threaded from some wider tapestry. Batman appears to be a unique cultural figure - and superheroes like the Green Arrow or Moon Knight are mocked as Batman knock-offs. But Batman was derived from Zorro, The Shadow, Nick Carter, and from an entire genre including authors like Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allan Poe.
To really understand Batman is to recognise these much larger entanglements, to say nothing of the broader cultural themes that make a fascist vigilante in a rodent outfit seem plausible.
Curiosity is valuable because it seeks out where things come from, how things might have been otherwise - and in this, it heightens our sensitivity to the work itself. Of all the genres, and all the plots, and all the symbols, and all the words, the author chose this. Curiosity undoes the glib charisma of the actual.
These virtues are never developed alone. We are social animals, and our excellences are cultivated gregariously - alongside rival ideas of beauty, goodness, justice.
This is the immense value of book clubs, book groups, literary critics, panels - they increase our familiarity with other ways of thinking, perceiving, feeling. They share the meal, so to speak. I wrote the Art of Reading partly for this reason: it's a companion to the literary experience. I'm saying: "Try this. What do you taste?"
Fellow bibliophiles: bon appetite.
Damon Young's book The Art of Reading is out now published by Scribe