You Are What You Read

Image from Jeffers, The Incredible Book-Eating Boy

In the Renaissance, when books were quite scarce and each one a precious object, owning a library was a sign of either wealth or eccentricity. Cardinal Bessarion (1403-1472) assiduously tried to assemble, piece by piece, most of the forgotten learning of the Greek and ancient world before it was irretrievably lost. As he explained in a letter, 

“I tried, to the best of my ability, to collect books for their quality rather than their quantity, and to find single volumes of single works; and so I assembled almost all the works of the wise men of Greece, especially those which were rare and difficult to find…They must be preserved in a place that is both safe and accessible, for the general good of all readers” (Jardine, Worldly Goods).

For Bessarion, there was a difference between many books and good books: he was willing to exhaust his time and coffers to find “quality” rather than simply amass a library. Even a Cardinal knew they needed a richer, more varied diet than 15th century Europe offered to the masses. If every dish represents a culture, then so, too, each book represents a whole history of ideas, preserved in careful thought and language. By reading the great works of the ancients, he hoped to bring about a true Renaissance of learning, as if books alone could resurrect the academies and agoras of the ancient philosophers.

Perhaps Bessarion followed the old adage that “you are what you eat.” So to stretch the metaphor a bit further, are you also what you read? While food literally breaks down into nutrients and waste, where does all the reading go? To your brain or to your heart? Or to nowhere at all—merely to the same place that mindless hours of television watching go, here one minute and gone the next, to be dimly recalled when you watch the next episode? The larger question is, of course, what kind of activity we should call reading. Is it strictly intellectual, something that actively engages the mind and shapes identity? Can even the breeziest beach read shape your moral and aesthetic outlook? Or is reading simply a way to pass the time, allowing some to pontificate and others to procrastinate?

If you locked a young person in a room with only pulp fantasy novels—say, the works of Robert E. Howard, author of Conan the Barbarian—it would serve as an education. While he or she might not be a Rhodes Scholar, their outlook would be profoundly shaped by the novels in question. Specific (and dated) notions of gender are built into these novels, as well as the aesthetics of storytelling: flowery, archaic narrative and scene-chewing dialogue. The young person’s notions of what makes a good story, good characters, and a good book would be forever shaped by this experience, even if subsequent reading challenged these notions. In short, a book which never set out to educate anyone or impose a set of values would do exactly that. If the young person decided to pen his or her own book, it would undoubtedly sound like a carbon copy of Howard’s prose, complete with his virile hero and his compliant, panting heroine.

In a sense, we’re all locked up in similar rooms during our childhood and adolescence, which is a time of cultural and intellectual isolation. Until adulthood, our perspective is largely limited to our own schools, homes, and rooms, which however diverse, is necessarily limited to a specific viewpoint. Boys usually surround themselves (if they read at all) with stories of space, swords, and monsters; girls gravitate to YA tales of romance and magic, often with a few vampires thrown in. All reading has to begin somewhere, so in this sense, any reading is healthy. While some might argue this fact, I strongly believe that reading is an intellectual exercise. It is more than passive entertainment, since it demands that the reader use his or her imagination to make the black marks of sentences live and breathe. Even the simplest story requires rudimentary translation and problem solving, since all narrative involve some measure of ambiguity and assumption. A book writes to a specific culture in a specific time, and using our cultural and intellectual baggage, we shape it in our likeness; indeed, no two books are exactly alike, as no two readers exactly resemble each other.

However, these early works shape our tastes well into middle-age, and for some, become the very definition of “good” or “bad” literature. So what should a person read as he or she embraces the identity of a ‘reader’? Is anything fair game? If all reading is intellectual, then doesn’t anything constitute a substantial, nutrient-rich meal as long as you avoid a famine? It’s a tough question. However, I think reading changes with the reader, and as a reader increases in age and sophistication, the reading should follow suit. In essence, just as the demands of the body adapt to advancing years (less salt, less sugar, more fiber, etc.), so reading, too, demands a diverse, wide-ranging diet that avoids bulking up on the “sugars” and the “fats.”

While this metaphor can easily be stretched too far, here’s a better example. In college, students usually encounter their first truly difficult reading: works such as Plato’s Republic or Shakespeare plays without convenient film adaptations. These works cannot be skimmed; they have to be read slowly, often with footnotes, as the text stubbornly resists the word-to-image translation they’ve become accustomed to. The first response for many students is, this is boring, or this is terribly written—it’s too dense, too long, and the characters are undeveloped. Simply check the 1 and 2 star reviews on Goodreads or Amazon for classic literature, and most will start “Had to read this for a class. Hated it!” In the same way, the first time someone has to try a dish from another culture with an exotic flavor profile, the response is often disgust—confusion—outrage. Many diners vow never to eat said food again, while others, taking bite after bite, start to become accustomed to the flavor. A select few become lifelong believers.

Becoming cultured demands a moment of conflict. All food shouldn’t have to be sweet; all books shouldn’t have to be novels. Good readers are born while struggling with a difficult text, since reading, more than anything else, is a skill. The only difference between a ‘bad’ reader and a ‘good’ reader is experience and curiosity. Those with experience know that not everything readily conforms to your notions of ‘good’ books, while those who are curious don’t expect them to. A good reader must actively challenge him or herself in different genres, with different authors, throughout the whole range of literature. The more we order the same dish at the same restaurant the less we exercise our reading acumen. Imagination is able to slumber, relying on the tried-and-true tropes of a given genre to supply the needed information. Then you stop actually reading, and are simply running your eyes over the words in a numb exercise of comfort; fine for a rainy day or a way to decompress from work, but not the vital, life-giving manna of thought.

So while all books are literature (since all can become agents of thought and education), not every book is the meal you need right now, at whatever age and position you find yourself in life. Reading has to grow with the reader, and while you can return to favorite books time and again, you also have to explore something new. Just as you are a different person from day to day, and year to year, so you have to find the right books, authors, genres, and themes to help you along. A book you dismissed as pretentious and irrelevant at 24 might become your personal bible at 45. Likewise, a favorite childhood tome might no longer speak to you at all. The only ‘bad’ books are the ones that no longer grow with you and advance you in your intellectual journey. What makes this exciting is that you never know what a good book will be—or where you will find it. You can only trust that reading with curiosity and rigor will bring the next great book within arm’s reach.