The Art of Reading

An extract from “The Art of Reading”

To my right is a small stained pine bookcase. It contains, among other things, my childhood.

Stacked in muted burgundy and khaki buckram are classics like Aesop’s Fables, full of blunt aphorisms for 4-year-olds: ‘To be well prepared for war is the best guarantee of peace’. Not far away is Richard Burton’s translation of The Book of the Thousand and One Nights, with its formally phrased smut (‘he laid his hand under her left armpit, whereupon his vitals and her vitals yearned for coition’). Still read after seven decades, my mother’s octavo The Magic Faraway Tree — mystery, adventure and casual corporal punishment. I also have her Winnie the Pooh, printed the year she was born. Seventy years on, her grandson now has Eeyore days. (‘Good morning, Pooh Bear … If it is a good morning … Which I doubt.’) But most important for me, standing face out in black plastic leather and fake gold leaf, is The Celebrated Cases of Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes
Early illustration of Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget

Holmes was my first literary world. Proudly bigger than anything read by my primary school peers, Conan Doyle’s 800-page tome was a prop in my performance of superiority. This archaic lump of text helped me feel special. I was more clever, said the serious serif font, than the other 11-year-olds; more intellectually brave, said the ornamental binding, than my teachers.

Sherlock Holmes was a kind of existential dress-up — an adult I tried on for size. I made our common traits a uniform: social abruptness, emotional flight, pathological curiosity. In Conan Doyle’s prose, this make-believe was more stylish than my clumsy boyhood persona. Take the first lines from The Sign of the Four: ‘Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case.’ My detective was an addict: but with panache. (I kept a dictionary for words like ‘morocco’. And ‘panache’.)

Holmes was not my first book. I was already in that ‘promised land’, as Vladimir Nabokov put it in Speak, Memory, ‘where … words are meant to mean what they mean’. I learned to read with the ‘Asterix’ adventures, when my parents refused to voice the speech boxes. If I wanted the puns and fisticuffs, I had to parse the text myself. Beside my bed there was also a lion who swallowed vegetable soup instead of rabbits; dinosaurs against industrial pollution; and Ferdinand the pacifist bull. These were training and, later, distraction. Like Germaine Greer, who ‘read for greed’, I kept myself busy with words on paper — an urge closer to rapacity than curiosity. These desires combined in ‘Garfield, as I devoured cartoons and lasagne with equal urgency.Yet there was more to The Celebrated Cases of Sherlock Holmes than my pretence. What I finally took from Conan Doyle’s mysteries was not savoir faire but freedom: the charisma of an independent mind. This Victorian London, with its shadows and blood, was mine. I winced as Holmes ‘thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston’, but the needle and its rush were my own to invent. Watson’s gentlemanly heroism, and Inspector Lestrade’s mediocrity: all belonging to the little boy lying quietly on the flokati rug. So my Holmesian education was only partly about general knowledge — the symbolic pips of the Ku Klux Klan, the atmosphere of moors, the principles of deduction. It was also, more crucially, schooling in the exertion of my own psyche. I willed this strange world into being, with help from Conan Doyle. The author was less like an entertaining uncle, and more like a conspirator. We met in private to secure my liberation from school’s banality and home’s atmosphere of violence.

But with The Celebrated Cases of Sherlock Holmes, I had a new sense of greater mastery, and pleasure in this discovery. Part of me saw Holmes as a legendary historical hero, and I enjoyed what novelist Michael Chabon called the ‘happy confusion’ of fact and fiction. Another part of me, burgeoning and a little buzzed, was doing away with deference. I realised that these dark marks on paper were mine to ignore or investigate, enrich or evade. It was with the junky detective that I first became aware of myself as something powerful: a reader.

Three decades later, my bookshelves are punctuated by discoveries of this imaginative independence. For these authors, the written word encouraged a new liberty: to think, perceive or feel with greater awareness.

Novelist William Gibson, whom I read as a teenager, is currently shelved in the garage between Ian Fleming’s pubescent thrillers and Harry Harrison’s galactic satire. Also roused by Sherlock Holmes as a boy, Gibson transformed his drab suburban neighbourhood into Victorian England, one brick wall at a time. ‘I could imagine that there was an infinite number of similar buildings in every direction,’ Gibson told The Paris Review, ‘and I was in Sherlock Holmes’s London.’ Conan Doyle’s stories were more than escapism or amusement for Gibson. They beckoned him to invent.

Two shelves under Gibson, Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk recalled reading as relief from tears of boredom, and as a flight from confronting fact. In Other Colours, the novelist congratulated himself, as I did, on ‘possessing greater depth than those who do not read’. This was partly juvenile boastfulness. But it was also an acknowledgement of the work involved: turning black text into an illuminated theatre. Pamuk wrote of the ‘creator’s bliss’ he enjoyed as a child reader, putting his mind to work with words.

A Backward Glance

Two rooms behind and one century before Pamuk is American novelist Edith Wharton. Invited into her father’s library as a child, she found a private sanctuary: a ‘kingdom’, as she put it. ‘There was in me a secret retreat,’ she wrote in A Backward Glance, ‘where I wished no one to intrude.’ This was more than withdrawal. With the poetry of Alfred Tennyson, Alexander Pope and Algernon Charles Swinburne, the criticism of John Ruskin, the novels of Walter Scott, Wharton played with exciting new themes and rhythms. She wrote about reading as a cultivation and celebration of her growing personality — what she called ‘the complex music of my strange inner world’. The novelist believed that she became more fully herself in those yellowing pages.

Eighteenth century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, stacked two feet to the left of Wharton, read romantic novels late into the night with his widower father. The stories made him aware, for the first time, of his own mind. ‘It is from my earliest reading,’ he wrote in his Confessions, ‘that I date the unbroken consciousness of my own existence.’ The point is not only that Rousseau’s emotions were encouraged by the novels, but also that he recognised them as his. And while the philosopher (characteristically) blamed fiction for his own histrionic bent, the melodrama arose chiefly out of little Jean-Jacques.

The shelf under Rousseau holds the modern philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. He discovered his literary authority in a sixth-floor apartment, looking down on Paris, his grandfather’s books in his hands. Words gave the boy a certain mastery over himself: he was a demiurge, bestowing the world with life, in language. ‘The Universe lay spread at my feet and each thing was humbly begging for a name,’ he wrote, ‘and giving it one was like both creating it and taking it.’ Sartre also collected American westerns and detective comics, and their heroic caricature — lone brave man against the world — remained in his philosophy, decades later.

Simone de Beauvoir, close to Sartre in my library as in life, remembered the security of books. Not only because of their docile bourgeois morality, but also because they obeyed her. ‘They said what they had to say, and didn’t pretend to say anything else,’ de Beauvoir wrote in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, ‘when I was not there, they were silent.’ She recognised that they asked for conviction and artistry — from Simone, rather than simply from the authors. De Beauvoir called this ‘the sorcery that transmutes printed symbols into stories’: without a reader, the magic stops.


There is no one-size-fits-all discovery of literary power. Reading is thick with the quirks of era, family and psychology. Some, like Rousseau, find romantic urges. Others, like Sartre, find enlightenment domination. There can be pretence, narcissism and cowardice. (But enough about me.) In many cases, there is a longing for what philosopher Herbert Marcuse labelled ‘holiday reality’: an asylum from ordinariness. Charles Dickens wrote about this as his boyhood ‘hope of something beyond that place and time’. But as Dickens’ later popularity suggests, these moments of youthful bibliophilia also coincide with the discovery of clout. The child is becoming aware, not only of worlds populated with detectives, Gauls or bulls, but also of an ‘I’: the reader, whose consent and creativity brings these worlds into being. Reading is an introduction to a more ambitious mind.

Jean-Paul Sartre, in What is Literature?, wrote: ‘There is no art except for and by others’. The philosopher’s argument was not that authors cannot enjoy writing for themselves; that every word is dashed off, hand aching, for tyrannical editors and audiences — what Henry James described in one letter as ‘the devouring maw into which I … pour belated copy’. Instead, Sartre’s point was that the text is only ever half finished by the writer. Without a reader, the text is a stream of sensations: dark and light shapes.

This does not mean ordinary life is a play of dumb necessity. Sensation always has some significance for humans — we are creatures of meaning, and the universe is never spied as a naked fact. But the world writ large does not refer to things fluently; the suggestions are often vague. ‘The dim little meaning which dwells within it,’ wrote Sartre of everyday sensation, ‘a light joy, a timid sadness, remains imminent or trembles about it like a heat mist.’ Ordinary life has a hazy atmosphere to it, whereas language illuminates brightly and sharply.

The letters achieve this by pointing beyond themselves — we read through the text, not off it. ‘There is prose when the word passes across our gaze,’ said Sartre, quoting the poet Paul Valéry, ‘as the glass across the sun.’ Words are portals of sorts: they frame reality, and become invisible as we peer.

Not all texts are as transparent as Sartre’s ideal prose. Poetry can be more opaque. Take Seamus Heaney’s ‘The Bookcase’. It refers literally to the poet’s library, but it also makes a spectacle of the English tongue. ‘Ashwood or oakwood? Planed to silkiness / Mitred, much eyed-along, each vellum-pale / Board in the bookcase held and never sagged.’ Alliteration, rhythm, metaphor: this is about a thing and its resonances, but it is also about language. Poetry puts on a show of words, just as painting displays colour, and music sound. Poetic phrases, wrote German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, ‘haul back and bring to a standstill the fleeting word that points beyond itself ’.

Language can be translucent like amber or clear like Valéry’s glass, but staring through it always asks for effort. Inscriptions or projections become words, which have meanings alongside their tone and cadence. This is what I first recognised in Sherlock Holmes: reading is always a transformation of sensation into sense. ‘You have to make them all out of squiggles,’ poet D Nurkse wrote, ‘like the feelers of dead ants.’

For the reader, this means rendering a world: the intricate ensemble beyond the page. When Conan Doyle writes that the sun is visible ‘through the dim veil which hangs over the great city’, I recreate London. Not only the sky’s spray of yellow and grey, but also the coal and commerce that make the metropolis ‘great’. The newspaper reporting the death of Sherlock’s client also evokes a community of middle-class readers from Cornwall to Northumberland, all participating in the imagined community of print. Waterloo Station, to which the victim was hurrying, suggests steam trains across England: taking passengers and parcels of The Times for men like Watson to read. All this I project behind the foreground prose. ‘The objects represented by art,’ as Sartre put it, ‘appear against the background of the universe.’ I piece together a cosmos from the author’s fragments.

What this all reinforces is that writing cannot make anything happen. As an infant, earlier editions of The Celebrated Cases of Sherlock Holmes were wholly opaque to me: blocks of chewable stuff. And as an 11-year-old I was not forced to imagine Holmes in his ‘velvet-lined arm-chair’, pushing blow into his blood. I had to commit myself to the text; to consent to a kind of active passivity, in which I accepted Conan Doyle’s words, then took responsibility for giving them some totality.

Reading requires some quantum of autonomy: no-one compels me to envisage their words. They are, at best, an invitation. Sartre phrases this as an ‘appeal’, and the idea makes sense of how little necessity is at play. Reading is always a meeting of two liberties: the artist’s and the audience’s.

In this light, it was false to say that my childhood is in the pine bookcase. It can seem this way, because old tomes prompt nostalgia. As Marcel Proust noted in On Reading, some memories of youth are lost in daily life, but regained in the pages we read during those years. ‘They are the only calendars we have kept,’ he writes, ‘of days that have vanished’. But if I never read these volumes again, the recollections can become Proust’s temps perdu: lost time. Whatever is most animated in the written word is only revived ‘when the dead letter comes again into contact’, as Hannah Arendt put it, ‘with a life willing to resurrect it’.

This is a more general point. My books are just objects alongside other objects: pigment, glue, dead cellulose and cowskin. If they do not enter into specific relations with very specific objects — literate humans — then reading never happens. Reading in general might one day cease altogether. If the species known to itself as Homo sapiens becomes extinct, all these readable things — books, newspapers, tweets, billboards, roadside signs, subatomic initials on copper — will no longer be texts, strictly speaking. They will be lived in, eaten, buried, climbed upon, oxidised, but not read.

The ubiquity of script masks the rarity and fragility of reading. What you are doing right now is, cosmically speaking, against the odds.

An assumption: you enjoy this unlikely activity. For most readers, this is an untroubled devotion. It is easy to identify with playwright Tom Stoppard, who spent his bus fare on second-hand books, ‘preferring the devil of hitchhiking to the deep blue sea of enduring half an hour bookless’. Identifying why we care is less straightforward.

Most obviously, reading is educational. This is why my parents intoned Blyton nightly, and why I spent so many afternoons sounding out Miffy at the Galleryto my daughter. An early introduction to the written word provides an enormous personal and political advantage. Researchers Anne Cunningham and Keith Stanovich reported that children’s literature encourages a profuse vocabulary: 50 per cent more unusual words than the chatter of university students, or the most popular television. This lexical abundance then encourages more reading: positive feedback that begins well before school, and lasts a lifetime. Along the way, reading piles up vast stocks of otherwise obscure facts. Political gambits, scientific hypotheses, historical dramas: these become the taken-for-granted ground upon which citizens walk. Texts help to lay this foundation in childhood.

The written word can also boost psychological health and social connection. Studies suggest that a lifetime’s reading, alongside company and exercise, can lessen dementia risk. Emory University researchers reported that participants reading a novel had more neural connectivity in the language and sensory motor regions of the brain. Lead author Gregory Berns wrote that ‘reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist’. What seems like an ethereal pursuit actually offers a visceral commingling. Research also suggests that literary fiction can contribute to a theory of mind, the idea we have of others’ mental states. A New School for Social Research study revealed that reading authors like Don DeLillo or Anton Chekhov caused a brief but measurable jump in emotional intelligence: in this case, judging a stranger’s mood from their eyes.

While it is flattering for bibliophiles to believe their pages guarantee a payoff, scepticism is warranted. Regular jogging might prevent mental decline far more reliably than reading Haruki Murakami on jogging. Some studies have small sample sizes or vague measures: brain scans say nothing about behaviour, or whether reading has unusual effects next to other pastimes. Others generalise too boldly about genres: does Chekhov have the same effects as Kazuo Ishiguro or Iris Murdoch? And even if DeLillo helps me guess someone’s humour, I can be correct without being sympathetic or caring — bastards enjoy fiction too. (Some are authors.) Reading has demonstrable benefits, but it is not a machine for producing geniuses or saints.

This outlook also values reading as a means to an end. This is important, and covers many kinds of genuine worth: historical, philosophical, culinary, sexual. I pick up Conan Doyle to learn about Victorian London or Immanuel Kant to better comprehend modern ethical theory. Some read for symbolic capital, others for last-minute dinner recipes, others for orgasm (‘a sort of ecstasy came over me after I had read for about an hour’, said the heroine in eighteenth-century French bestseller Thérèse the Philosopher). There is no harm in highlighting the benefits of text, whether straightforward or subtle, scholarly or biological. But this approach can ignore how reading is an end in itself: an opportunity for experiences.

Experience is vital: literally, to do with life. As philosopher John Dewey argued, my organic existence is experience: a to-and-fro between creature and milieu. I act upon things, and they upon me. I receive impressions, but my mind gives them colour, shape, significance. These prompt some reflex, habit or choice, which invites a response from the world. And so on.

‘The career and destiny of a living being,’ Dewey wrote, ‘are bound up with its interchanges with its environment … in the most intimate way.’ This whole interplay between myself and the cosmos is neither chaos nor perfect harmony, but unfolds in rhythms. We cannot know with absolute certainty what this universe is; cannot accept a naïve realism, which does away with philosophical doubt. But even here, the primacy of experience is clear: a creaturely play between self and other, which includes confusion about the edges of each.

Reading affords experiences. It does this, not by deputising me to solve crimes at Baker Street or doping me up to punch Roman centurions, but by tying signs to sense. Writing takes the stuff of daily life and crafts it into an innovative view of self and world. The ‘dim little meaning’ Sartre saw in ordinary sensation is given a new significance. Ideas are brought together in surprising ways; emotions moved from memory to fantasy; perceptions revivified or revised. While reading might not use every limb or organ, it draws on the fullness of life, rendering it with clarity, durability or vividness. ‘Every work of art follows the plan of, and pattern of, a complete experience,’ Dewey wrote, ‘rendering it more intensely and concentratedly felt.’

This art need not be literary fiction or verse. While the best novels or poems are certainly transformative, disciplines like philosophy also offer experiences. The timbre of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics departs from that of Homer’s Iliad, but Aristotle still offers a unique portrait of the cosmos, which includes its emotional atmospheres. Our doings and undergoings are not monopolised by any one literary form. From a quip on social media to biblical scrolls, writing gestures at some larger congress with the world; some universe beyond the glyphs. Whatever benefits reading offers, they are only gained in this experience: as part of a more general commingling with things.

With readers, this experience is often valued for its own sake. First, there is the pleasure of exertion. As David Hume noted in his A Treatise of Human Nature, mental effort is gratifying. We seek truth, he writes, because of ‘the genius and capacity, which is employed in its invention and discovery’. This is as true of reading fiction as doing philosophy: either way, we are flexing psychological muscles.

But just as important is the world this labour offers. I read because I enjoy the experience of reading: the encounter with a refined and restored vision of life. This does not mean there is some invisible kernel of worth inside a book; that I can move quickly from my bliss to divinely given value, buried in dried cellulose and printer’s ink. It means that I enjoy the experience for the experience, and nothing more. Perhaps it is the quickening of my speculative intellect as I read Alfred North Whitehead, or the curt beauty of a Deborah Levy phrase; perhaps it is the nostalgia prompted by Holmes, or the embarrassed recognition of myself in George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying; perhaps it is just the brief getaway, in a glib Star Trek novel, from the pain of living. This is why Virginia Woolf, in ‘How Should One Read a Book?’, portrayed God as a little jealous of literary souls. ‘Look, these need no reward,’ he proclaimed to Saint Peter in paradise. ‘We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.’ Reading is desirable for its own sake and, unless it causes harm, no excuses need be given.

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