“Excessive reading is bad for thinking. The most distinguished thinkers I have ever met have been just those of my learned acquaintances who have read the least.”
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Reflections (1844)
At its most recent meeting, the Editorial Board of the Orthosphere decided to jointly publish an essay on the best books its members had read in 2021. The resolution provoked in me, as similar resolutions had provoked in years past, a bashful consciousness that I had read very little in 2021, and that much of what I did read was trash.
I was at one time a tiger for reading, not to mention a sabre-tooth tiger of ambition to appear well-read. But nowadays, when it comes to books, I am more like a puppy that sniffs, tentatively paws, yaps twice, and then lopes away in search of lunch.
Because I have no head for science, and no stomach for technology, there is little to tempt me in what others assure me are the fruits of modern thought. When it comes to those things for which I have both head and stomach, modern thought appears to offer little but turds, toadstools and tumescence. At least this is what I am pleased to think now that I have reached the age of heavy eyelids and an easily fatigued brain.
I cannot recover the source, but I once somewhere read the opinion that one must read a great many books to learn how many books are not worth reading. Stated somewhat differently, one must waste a great deal of time reading to learn that a great deal of reading is a great waste of time.
What I just wrote is a paradox, of course, since learning a lesson that must be learned is never a waste of time. And learning that most books are as falsely seductive as bawdy women is one of those lessons that must be learned.
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I do not say that all books are worthless, or maintain that men can grow wise as simple children of nature; but I do know, as a recovering bookwork, that excessive reading is no more wholesome, and no more meritorious, than excessive drinking, excessive eating, or excessive carnal enjoyment.
Indeed, over-reading (a valuable word) has ill effects similar to other overindulgences, because it so often induces lethargy, spleen and ennui.
And the vice of over-reading is more insidious than many other vices because so many books have been written to persuade men enslaved to reading that their weakness is a badge of honor. A drunkard will hide his bottles. A glutton will suck in his gut. But a voracious reader! Ye gods! He most closely resembles the womanizer who boasts of his tally of whores.
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I have now twice likened books to bawdy women, the first time because many books are falsely seductive, promising what they cannot supply, and the second time because many voracious readers are under the quantitative delusion that better is synonymous with more.
You will not find wisdom by simply sticking your nose in hundreds of books—no more than you will find love by simply sticking your ——- in hundreds bawds.
You will find wisdom by wedding yourself to a short shelf of books, just as you will find love by wedding yourself to one wife. This is evident if you compare a man who has studied nothing but his Bible (or his Plato) with a man who has acquired syphilis and strange perversions in the bawdy house of a large library.
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Here are some strictures on voracious reading from the satirical German aphorist, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799). They are taken from his Reflections, which was first published in 1844, and first translated into English in 1908.
“I suspect that some of the greatest geniuses that ever lived neither read half so much nor knew anything like as much as some of our mediocre scholars. What is more, not a few of our mediocre scholars might have become greater men if they had only not read so much.”
I am myself a mediocre scholar who has now acquired the abstemious reading habits of Lichtenberg’s greatest geniuses. I shudder to think how much more mediocre I would be if I had not, in middle age, developed a profound distaste for “the literature” of my field. If I had not outgrow the voracity I had been taught in graduate school, I might be today a creaking encyclopedia of once-fashionable cant.
“What with our premature and often only too excessive reading, whereby we accumulate much information without digesting it . . . . what with this, I say, it needs a profound philosophy . . . to ﬁnd one’s way out of the mass of alien thoughts; to begin to feel, to speak, and I might almost say, to exist for oneself.”
There is no profit in reading if the reader is nothing but an open maw, gulping information without stopping to chew and digest. And there has been no profit in reading if the reader does not one day grow into his own man with his own opinions. We are men, not parrots, and a grown man who still pipes borrowed opinions is what St. Paul meant by a tinkling cymbal and a sounding brass.
“The ages when people begin to study the rules by which other ages managed to accomplish such great things, are ages in a poor way. Instead of having good digestions and keen powers of invention, the best minds become terribly well-read, pale, consumptive stay-at-homes.”
This aphorism cuts a little close to this reader of old books and believer in permanent things, but I know that what Lichtenberg says is often true. Explorers do not follow marked trails, and there is a bad sort of philology that is beloved by only vampires and ghouls. This is why it is all too easy to become “terribly well read.”
“There is a certain kind of book, extremely numerous in Germany, which do not, indeed, scare us from reading them, or send us off to sleep immediately, or stupefy us, but which after about an hour’s time reduce the mind to a certain condition of lassitude . . .
I have been very often pummeled into this demoralized lassitude by a book of just this sort, a book that was not obviously bad, or boring, but that nevertheless sapped my vitals and made the world go grey.
If we lay the book aside, we are not in the mood to study anything; if we begin to write, we write in just the same style ourselves; even if we at once begin to read the best books they seem to acquire a tepid tastelessness . . .
Whatever the ostensible subject of this sort of book, its subliminal message after, an hour’s time reading, is existential nihilism. The question that it forms in the reader’s mind is, in what sort of a universe could men write, much less attempt to read, a book of the dead such as this one? The answer that immediately reports for duty is, a very sad universe indeed.
Fortunately, Lichtenberg suggests one antidote to the demoralized lassitude that comes of reading these books of the dead:
I know from personal experience that against this sad condition there is no speciﬁc like a cup of coffee and a pipe.