On the Importance of Reading Wisely

“The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.”

“You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them,” wrote the author of Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury. In cacotopias such as Gilead, Oceania and Huxley’s dystopian version of London, reading is proscribed, books are wiped out and infants are infused with “an instinctive hatred of books.” Books are regarded as powerful enough to upend governments. Hence, they are obliterated as a means to repress dissent, normalize ignorance and maintain control.

Thus, with the power of the written word and the freedom to read, comes a responsibility to be selective about what we read. In fact, “the man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.” In order to corroborate this statement, one needs, first, to examine the question of what is considered a great book. Traditionally, it is conceived of as the type of work that would expand our knowledge and shape our thoughts.  Hence, to offset non-reading, reading needs to shake off our misconceptions, encourage us to think critically and bring us closer to the truth. Franz Kafka states that it should “wake us up with a blow to the head” and “affect us like a disaster.”

Alternatively, when we think of reading as a therapeutic activity, a good book is not necessarily a book that tackles a serious topic and leads us to glean deep insights. It can be any book that makes us feel better, provides us with guidance or helps us improve our relationships with others. Getting engrossed in a beautiful book has been shown to have positive effects on our mental wellbeing that are similar to those induced by meditation. In the words of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, if you feel distressed, “come, and take choice of all my library/and so beguile thy sorrow.”

Reading a great book can be seen as a healing experience in the sense that it opens doorways into our psyches and shows us the way to ourselves. Seeing one’s inchoate thoughts and feelings put into clear words not only makes us feel understood but also helps know ourselves better. In his 1905 essay “On Reading”, Marcel Proust avers that reading “is at the threshold of our inner life; it can lead us into that life but cannot constitute it.”

In addition to being an edifying experience, reading can allow us to become agents of change. The concept of intellectual responsibility is predicated upon the idea that reading good books charges us with the responsibility to dismantle lies and dispute dominant narratives. Thus, by failing to make wise choices about what we read, we cannot separate ourselves from the unreflecting and acquiescent herd.

The responsibility to tell the truth and incite positive change makes it challenging to know what books to read. Arthur Schopenhauer posits that we should not just content ourselves with finding the right books. He proposes that “In order to read what is good, one must make it a condition never to read what is bad; for life is short, and both time and strength limited.”

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