I have a peculiar way of reading books, but I assure you that there is method in it. One book is most certainly not enough to read at any given time. This is because one reads for a variety of purposes, and certain purposes suit certain moods. One certainly wants some philosophy on hand, to feed one’s brain, but novels are equally rewarding in the relaxation they afford. Instructional texts are best read in small pieces, so that the information can be digested as tasks are performed. Multiple books of each type are necessary for contrast and comparison, as lenses through which to view one another, but most of all, to slow one down.
I started a Leonard Cohen novel about a year ago, and I am savouring every last sentence of the epilogue. This is a sure indication that I am attached to a book—I do not want it to end. The best way to prevent a book from ending is to read many other books concurrently and save the best one for optimal reading time. Optimal reading time will most likely involve lamplight, wine and your favourite music. Downtime is also excellent reading time, but generally less than optimal—on the train, waiting for the train, or waiting for your coffee date to arrive. There are always people causing distractions and saying ridiculous things that interfere with your reading. During my downtime, I am reading Oscar Wilde. He thinks he is very clever, and while his witticisms are overdone and forced, they are better than inadvertently hearing people’s conversations on the train.
Michelle Boulous Walker is working on what she calls an aesthetics of reading. Walker originally believed that her thoughts would uncover an ethics of reading, in that if we have a moral obligation to texts, it is that we afford them respect through reading them thoroughly and attentively. As she explained to me recently, aesthetics remains fiercely intertwined with this ethics.
The key to any philosophy of ethical reading is, as I see it, the notion of respect which recurs in her paper Becoming Slow: Philosophy, Reading and the Essay (2011).* This respect requires the dying art of patience—‘the patience involved in “sitting with” the world,’ reminiscent of the Situationist technique of De’rive, though, of course, with more direction. Where certain Situationists would lead their Parisian architecture classes in the mode of ‘drifting’—a solid day of drinking coffee on the terrace of a café, literally yet attentively watching the world go by for hours on end, learning by observing how people move in space (as Ve’ronique Vienne** describes), Walker calls for an equally slow indulgence in a book—a ‘rumination,’ as Nietzsche (p. 269) describes it; a ‘meditation’ in Walker’s words (p. 272). Nietzsche suggests that a serious reader, by contrast with ‘modern man,’ ‘need[s] to be a cow’ to possess such ruminative qualities. While not deliberately wasting time in order to resist boredom, as the Situationists sought to do, respectful readers will allocate sufficient time for reading, re-reading and meditating on texts that will, in the modern world, seem wasteful, behind and perhaps even disengaged. The irony is that expressing such patience allows ‘thought to emerge and respectfully engage with the world’ (p. 265, emphasis my own)—extending the ethics of reading into our broader experiences in the world.
Walker describes two forms of respectful meditation akin to reading: art and the essay. Art requires a slow approach to the world, a careful reading of visual stimulus, an attentive recording of forms and colours. An artist might approach the same subject matter again and again, perfecting technique and building up knowledge about that subject matter, be it a mountain range or human anatomy. Portrait artist Michael Shapcott captures this point when he explains: ‘It’s so fascinating to me that I can slightly alter the angle of an eye or the color of a cheek and the entire expression of the figure changes, changing the entire feel of the piece. The art of bringing emotion to a flat surface will always be a lifelong experience and learning process for me.’ Reading, I would suggest, is more akin to viewing art than creating it, though much art has provided mental food for centuries. Learning any process of creation can slow us down and help us to appreciate the art form in front of us—be it a few steps of ballet, opening our eyes to the complexity of a professional performance.
In terms of the essay—and I like to extend this to long-form writing in a more general sense—Walker (p. 274) summarises Adorno: ‘By refusing too hurriedly to seize the world, to understand it by containing it, to speak definitively, to summarise, or assimilate it, the essay offers us a future philosophy—one that holds out the hope for a slow engagement with the complexity and ambiguity of the world.’
Slow, meditative reading, argues Walker (p. 274), ‘would thwart our modern preoccupation with speed and haste, and open us to the wondrous space of a slow engagement that welcomes thought, rather than shutting it out.’
* Walker, Michelle Boulous. 2011. ‘Becoming Slow: Philosophy, Reading and the Essay.’ In The Antipodean Philosopher: Public Lectures on Philosophy in Australia and New Zealand, Volume 1. Eds. Graham Oppy and N. N. Trakakis. Lexington: Plymouth UK.
** Vienne, Ve’ronique. 2002. ‘The Spectacle: A reevaluation of the Situationist thesis.’ In Looking Closer 4. Eds. Michael Beruit, William Drenttel, Steven Heller. Allworth: New York.
↬ Hat tip to Emily Jeffords for putting me onto Michael Shapcott, who is about to embark on an ambitious project funded by fans through KickStarter.
News: My online shop is now open for business! Treat yourself to a print, or pen your friend or secret lover a poem on a charming note card. I will be adding more illustrations in a sedate and unhurried manner, and you are most welcome to request any favourites you would like to see make an appearance. x