Across three essays for Literary Hub, one of my favourite authors, Will Self, ponders big, bookish questions.
Will Self: How should we read? In praise of literary promiscuity in the digital age – Literary Hub
To read promiscuously is to comprehend the caresses of one work in the arms of another—and the promiscuous reader is a pedagogue par excellence. How should we read? We would read as gourmands eat, gobbling down huge gobbets of text. No one told me not to pivot abruptly from Valley of the Dolls to The Brothers Karamazov—so I did; anymore than they warned me not to intersperse passages of Fanny Hill with those written by Frantz Fanon—so I did that, too. By reading indiscriminately, I learned to discriminate—and learned also to comprehend: for it’s only with the acquisition of large data sets that we also develop schemas supple enough to interpret new material.
So many books, so little time — so just keep going!
Will Self on what to read: Canons to the left, canons to the right, and everything in between – Literary Hub
All of which is by way of saying: read what the hell you like. In a literary culture in which a Booker Prize winner (Bernadine Evaristo) can give an interview to the Guardian newspaper in which she states that “life’s too short” for her to read Ulysses, clearly the old idols have fallen. But then, they haven’t been the old idols for very long. No, read what you want—but be conscious that in this area of life as so many others; you are what you eat, and if your diet is solely pulp, you’ll very likely become rather… pulpy. And if you read books that almost certainly won’t last, you’ll power on through life with a view of cultural history as radically foreshortened as the bonnet of a bubble car.
And here, he compares the move from social reading to private, silent reading with the shift from the hefty codex to the hand-sized screen.
Why should you read? Will Self wonders what the hell we think we’re doing – Literary Hub
In the current era the dispute between those who view the technological assemblage of the internet and the web as some sort of panacea for our ills, and those who worry it might herald the end of everything from independent thought (whatever that might be), to literacy itself, has a slightly muted feel. I suspect the reason for this is also to be found in Understanding Media: as McLuhan pointed out, the supplanting of one medium by another can take a long time—and just as the practice of copying manuscripts by hand continued for centuries after the invention of printing, so solitary reading—conceived of importantly as an individual and private absorption in a unitary text of some length—persists, and will continue to endure long after the vast majority of copy being ingested is in the form of tiny digitized gobbets.