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Read for pleasure

Against the functionalist approach to literature

Poor Lex Fridman. Little did the computer scientist-turned-podcaster know what he was doing when, on New Year’s Eve, he tweeted what has since become known simply as “The List”: the 52 books he intends to read over the course of 2023. The plan, Lex explained, is simple. One book a week. No genre in particular: classics, non-fiction, sci-fi, and everything in between — all based on recommendations. And finally, a strict timetable: “Start on Monday, done on Sunday”.

You probably know what happened next. More than any other platform, Twitter seems to be a magnet for disappointed former high achievers, desperate to find some way, in the absence of glowing school reports, to position themselves against each other in adulthood — or, better yet, to live out that role-reversal fantasy in which they, misunderstood bookworms, finally get to bully the literal-minded techie from Year 10. This, it seems, was their moment. Lex’s List, they smugly assured him, was “simple”, “embarrassing”, a “stupid person’s idea of a smart person’s reading list”.

But all Fridman was doing was … setting himself the challenge of reading a book a week. Yes, some of the choices were a bit naff, but one genuinely terrible book (Sapiens) out of 52 isn’t awful — and in any case, sometimes it’s good practice to read a rubbish book, even if just to analyse what’s wrong with it. Sure, there’s also something a little forced about the project, but then who among us hasn’t read a book, in the first instance, simply because we felt guilty for having not done so yet, or to impress a crush, or because Lionel Trilling told us to — only then to fall entirely under its spell? Fridman, it seems, can’t win: he ought already, Twitter sneered, to have read most of the books on his list — but he apparently also needs to be punished for trying to make amends now.

Bullies will be bullies, and snobs will be snobs. Still, there is one rather odd thing about Fridman’s plan: just how — well — pre-planned it is.

Do you know what you’ll be reading on May 17th this year? Certainly I’ve no idea what I’ll have on my bedside table. A lot depends, naturally, on what I discover between now and then — and what, at each juncture, I’m inspired to move on to next. But Fridman has determined, already, that in the third week of May he’ll be reading Siddhartha. And then, the following week, Dune. And the week after that, Frankenstein.

This all betrays a very modern, functionalist understanding of literature

This all betrays a very modern, functionalist understanding of literature. It doesn’t seem to matter, to Fridman, in which order he reads his books — nor does it occur to him that he might come across something along the way that entices him down a completely different literary path (he does hint that the list might change a little, but seemingly only on the basis of new recommendations). Instead, books appear to be, to him, just isolated, self-contained “chunks” of knowledge — boxes to be ticked, in no meaningful order.

Plenty has been written about our modern, Baconian conception of knowledge — and our tendency to see learning simply as the accumulation of discrete facts, which, once totted up, will provide us with a full picture of reality. Friedman’s List exhibits this mindset in extreme form. But the solution his “liberal arts” critics often like to propose — a return to a kind of “Great Books” education, based on a canon of the most important works in history — isn’t actually much better. Sure, there’s a bit more of a narrative structure to it, but ultimately it still treats books as things to “get done” — a progress bar in one’s mind inching ever further to the right.

Take Clifton Fadiman’s book The New Lifetime Reading Plan. Or Charles van Doren’s The Joy of Reading: A Passionate Guide to 189 of the World’s Best Authors and Their Works, which concludes, too, with a “Ten-Year Reading Plan”. Or the Great Books of the Western World series, which comprises 517 books, arranged in entirely chronological order. Perfectly honourable though these systems are, reading simply to complete a “plan” or a “series” strikes me as effectively as utilitarian as reading just “to improve your vocabulary”, “relieve stress”, or “improve your concentration”.

What’s missing is the fundamental question: what — if not for some functional end — is the actual point of reading?

Obviously — and this is already where any kind of single, overarching narrative inevitably fails — the answer will necessarily differ from book to book, and certainly from fiction to non-fiction. One often reads the latter for practical reasons — and that’s fine. But where fiction is concerned, we need to reaffirm clearly why reading is valuable in and of itself. We read for pleasure, for joy, for wisdom, for insights that can’t be gained elsewhere. It’s a uniquely rewarding experience, summed up neatly in Nabokov’s description of reading Dickens:

All we have to do when reading Bleak House is to relax and let our spines take over. Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder-blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle. Let us be proud of being vertebrates, for we are vertebrates tipped at the head with a divine flame. The brain only continues the spine, the wick really runs through the whole length of the candle. If we are not capable of enjoying that shiver, if we cannot enjoy literature, then let us give up the whole thing and concentrate on our comics, our videos, our books-of-the-week.

Let me add: if we cannot enjoy that shiver, then we should certainly give up on trawling through reading lists simply out of a sense of obligation.

Still, surely we still need to structure our reading somehow? One of the main — perfectly legitimate — criticisms of Generation Internet is that its grasp of culture is becoming increasingly fragmented. In the absence of any proper education, we resort to picking up scraps here and there from Wikipedia binges, social media, and long, winding journeys down hyperlink wormholes — gradually piecing together a lopsided, unique-to-each-of-us image of what’s out there. You see it on Twitter, in conversations between bright, young, ambitious writers, sharing with each other their latest magpie-like finds: snippets from books, snaps from exhibitions, links to music. The results are often quite comical: “Hey — check out this amazing guy, Kandinsky!”

Clearly, repeated over several generations, such a haphazard and formless education would prove disastrous. But I’m not sure the solution is to trammel the genuine joy and enthusiasm on display with endless lists.

Instead, what we need is better historical knowledge — a skeletal awareness of our artistic past that each of us can pad out with flesh as we pursue whatever currently thrills us. Every child should be equipped, that is, with a proper, thorough understanding of our cultural history — to know, in general terms, how the novel developed, and why; how the symphony developed, and why; how representational art gave way to abstraction, and why. We need to understand, broadly, what we know and, crucially, what we don’t — so that, when the time is right, we know exactly what to read or listen to or look at next, and why. If what’s tickling your fancy right now is Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, then stick with it. The important thing is to be aware of other outlines you’ll probably want to colour in at a later stage.

Maybe that’s easier said than done. But it strikes me as a better approach than simply treating great literature as a checklist. As for Lex, let’s just hope that, sometime around mid-February, he finds a book he truly adores — one that sets him spinning off in a completely unexpected direction for the rest of the year.

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