Sunday, March 29, 2020

Why Read During the Pandemic?

To avoid going stir-crazy or feeling lonely or trapped, people are trying to occupy their minds by reading books.  Yes, people are reading more; all kinds of services popping up about books to read.  I wonder, with all the information, ads, pitches, distractions deluging us, whether reading is a skill we may be losing. Surfing the internet isn’t a recipe for learning the art of deep reading.  But maybe the enforced solitude will get us back into reading.

Reading anything deeply and thoughtfully takes time.  You need a space free from distractions. But glued to our smart phones, we’re constantly being distracted. Distraction and seduction is the aim.  We have created a technological vampire that feeds on our souls—i.e., our attention, our consciousness.  But there is some good news--there is life after online existence.

A book in your hands is a way into a world, a world that invites imagination,  challenges mind and can touch the heart.  But the book needs you to bring it to life;  reading is not a passive experience.  You have to imagine and co-create the experience.  Reading is a way to exercise the imagination.

And reading is a retreat from the normality of everyday mental life.  It can take us on journeys out of our familiar selves. Reading can be an altered state of consciousness—a ‘drug’ that is free, totally available, mind-expanding, and non-addictive.  (But if it is, so much the better.)

For the benefits of reading, full attention is essential. Reading demands a certain amount of mind-control, and it’s a form of meditation.  As far as loneliness, I can’t imagine feeling lonely if I have the company of some good books.  Think of all the extraordinary people and stories we can meet through the medium of the book. Loneliness just means we have to wake up our imaginations. Now that we’re stuck inside, stopped in our damn tracks, we might have time to listen to ideas and stories and who knows what, stuff we never dreamed of, all waiting to be told in a book we might read.

“Sitting still, he travels very far,” writes the author of the Katha Upanishad.  And truly we can travel very far on the wings of words.  I remember the first time I read Homer’s Odyssey in translation, and later when I learned to read it in Greek.  The dactylic hexameter was like rowing a boat through the waves and I was clairvoyantly with Odysseus and his men during their adventures.  Reading is a way of visiting other worlds and inhabiting other personalities. No matter how alone or confined you feel, a book can be a door your mind can step through, a road to new discoveries about yourself and the world outside yourself.

There’s an expression “mind-reader” that refers to a person who can ‘read’ your mind, that is, by telepathy. The expression is perfect for describing what a book is.  When you read a book, your are indeed ‘reading’ the author’s mind.   To know the mind of Shakespeare is to read the words that came from his pen and his poetic mind.

It’s quite amazing.  How by reading we make intimate contact with the minds of all manner of men and women right across history. For example, you can read the words preserved from the trial of Joan of Arc, how she replied to the terrorists about to burn her at the stake. There is all of history and all of arts and sciences to read about; reading is a way of getting out of ourselves into larger worlds and wider mental perspectives.

The novel coronavirus has thrown us into a kind of enforced contemplative life. 
My suggestion—make the best of it—it’s the only way to stop the virus.  In the meantime, go contemplative.  Wallow in the bliss of non-doing.  Make it your duty to be magnificently idle.  For a while let ecstasy instead of productivity be your aim. Stare out the window open-mouthed and wait for a miracle to appear dancing in the sky. And if none of that helps with the angst, read a book.


Miguel said...

Great post, Michael. I would simply add that for those who do not have new books to read at home and who might not want to leave their homes, but have internet access, they can get get many ebooks for free through their local town or county library. Also, it appears that at least one for-profit company is making its ebooks collection available for free for at least a month, And, of course, there is project Gutenberg:

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