Tuesday, July 09, 2013

How many books should one read to gain wisdom?

Of a couple of faculty colleagues with whom I was friends, at least for a while, one, who retired a few years ago, loved engaging me in arguments and debates, especially when we were in agreement, which was almost all the time.

Once, when we were discussing and walking, she asked me, for the gazillionth time, how old I was.  And she  stopped walking when I told her. (Stalker ladies, I ain't telling you how old I am!)  And then, she gave me what I thought was one of the best compliments that I have ever received--she thought I was way wise for my age.

We often construct images of people we interact with, based on whatever little we know.  She, too, had thus estimated my age at a good decade-plus more than what I was based on what she knew about me and my way of thinking.

In developing such an image, she had also imagined that I read a great number of books, all the time.  I corrected that, too.  The reality is that I rarely ever read full-length books anymore.

She was initially convinced that I was playing the fool. Why play one when I am one, right?

The scientist that she was, she then quizzed me a lot over the next few conversations and finally convinced herself that I really don't read a great deal of books.

I then let her in on what I thought was an open secret: that most modern books in the humanities and the social sciences aren't entirely new thoughts developed by the authors.  Instead, the gist of their arguments in the full-length books can often be found in much shorter, and easier to read, essays they would have authored in publications--academic or general.  That condensed form works very well for me.

As a follow-up, when it was her birthday time, I gifted her this book:

I hadn't read that book either, which amused her to to a great deal!

But, her prodding made me inquire about my own approach to understanding the world.

The only satisfying explanation is this: the constant reading of articles and news reports is reinforced by that old Hindu philosophical approach that understanding the world is a lot more intuitive than analytical.

Recently, when another friend asked me whether I had read a certain book--fiction, in this case--I told her that I find contemporary full-length fiction to be unappealing.  When I am in the mood for it, I go back to the classics.  I re-read any one of the books I have read in the past.  When I read Fathers and Sons a second time after nearly twenty-five years, the insights I gained from it were phenomenal.  Or, the time I re-read Catch 22 or Fahrenheit 451.

Which is why when I came across the following Vladimir Nabokov quote, I immediately resonated with it:
Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why. When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do not have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to a painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting. However, let us not confuse the physical eye, that monstrous masterpiece of evolution, with the mind, an even more monstrous achievement. A book, no matter what it is—a work of fiction or a work of science (the boundary line between the two is not as clear as is generally believed)—a book of fiction appeals first of all to the mind. The mind, the brain, the top of the tingling spine, is, or should be, the only instrument used upon a book.
But then, how do we know we have read enough books and that our time might be better spent re-reading them?  That answer is intuitive, my dear reader ;)

Keep in mind that "knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers."  I am furiously at work to get past the "wise guy" wisecrack to a real one, though, I am increasingly convinced that even now I could easily open up an ashram here and babble a few things and earn a lot more money.  As I recently joked with a friend, the answers to all questions are right at my blog already ;)

After I re-read the sentences up until here, (see, I already put Nabokov to use!) I wonder what the point is!

Will end it with this:
We are not provided with wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can take for us, and effort which no one can spare us.- Marcel Proust 


Ramesh said...

My cmments could fro any angle on this post

- I could say the Nabakov quote does not resonate with me at all, despite the fact that I am a voracious rereader of a few books I absolutely adore.

- I could say that your colleague's misconception of your age might have been somewhat infuenced by your greyish beard.

- I could marvel at somebody who will not read a fiction piece but will read an academic journal (the miracle cure for insomnia). Academicians are the most boring writers of all, especially if they are trying to impress fellow academicians.

- Instead I'll ask - how come all your friends are women :):)

Shachi said...

The title is so catchy!

And I don't need to read books. Between yours, Ramesh's and Preeti Shenoy's blog, I have the ability to gain all the necessary wisdom :) :)!

I'm amazed at the variety of topics you write....I'm lucky to have found your blog!

Now, the bookworm that I am, would you recommend me (or hubby) reading Fathers and Sons? I have read the other two you mentioned :)!

Sriram Khé said...
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