Sooner or later, a reader would ask himself/herself, “What is reading?”, or sometimes, “Am I doing it right?”, or still, “Why am I even reading this?”
I am a reader. And I am curious. Have been, will be, always. So yeah, I’ve been there.
Today I want to talk about reading－the essence of the activity, its joys and sorrows, an attitude towards it, some wisdom－just because I want to. But I get the feeling that some of you will benefit from it. Beacuse this time it does not just come from me, but also from a master－of both Western and Oriental philosophies, of literature, of writing, of reading, and above all, of the art of living.
His name is Lin Yutang.
I am not gonna bore you here with how much this man has achieved in his life－that will be a disservice to the man’s lifelong teaching.
So without further ado, I give you his thoughts on the matter of reading.
But the moment he takes up a book, he immediately enters a different world, and if it is a good book, he is immediately put in touch with one of the best talkers in the world. This talker leads him on and carries him into a different country or a different age, or unburdens to him some of his personal regrets, or discusses with him some special line or aspect of life that the reader knows nothing about.
And the impact of reading is best illustrated by comparison of one who does read with one who does not:
The man who has not the habit of reading is imprisoned in his immediate world, in respect to time and space. His life falls into a set routine; he is limited to contact and conversation with a few friends and acquaintances, and he sees only what happens in his immediate neighborhood.
Or we may listen to the best formula for the object of reading, stated by Huang Shanku, a Chinese scholar from Song Dynasty and friend of the literary legend Su Tungpo:
A scholar who has’t read anything for three days feels that his talk has no flavor, and his own face becomes hateful to look at. (三日不讀書，言語無味，面目可憎)
But Lin (and I) does not agree with the widely accepted idea that one reads to learn and advance in life, or to get famous and rich. Because that is what reading is not:
One does not read to “improve one’s mind,” because when one begins to think of improving his mind, all the pleasure of reading is gone. He is the type of person who says to himself: “I must read Shakespeare, and I must read Sophocles, and I must read the entire Five Foot Shelf of Dr. Eilot, so I can become an educated man.” I am sure that man will never become educated. He will force himself one evening to read Shakespeare’s Hamlet and come away, as if from a bad dream, with no greater benefit than that he is able to say that he has “read” Hamlet. Anyone who reads a book with a sense of obligation does not understand the art of reading. This type of reading with a business purpose is in no way different from a senator’s reading up of files and reports before he makes a speech. It is asking for business advice and information, and not reading at all.
I feel compelled to share what he has to say about the only kind of reading that is worthy:
I regard the discovery of one’s favorite author as the most critical event in one’s intellectual development. There is such a thing as the affinity of spirits, and among the authors of ancient and modern times, one must try to find an author whose spirit is akin with his own. Only in this way can one get any good out of reading. One has to be independent search out his masters. Who is one’s favorite author, no one can tell, probably not even the man himself. The reader cannot be told to love this one or that one, but when he has found the author he loves, he knows it himself by a kind of instinct.
Of course, on one’s favorite author:
It is only this kind of reading, this discovery of one’s favorite author, that will do one any good at all. Like a man falling in love with his sweetheart at first sight, everything is right. She is of the right height, has the right face, the right color of hair, the right quality of voice and the right way of speaking and smiling. The author is not something that a young man needs to be told about by his teacher. The author is just right for him; his style, his taste, his point of view, his mode of thinking, are all right. And then the reader proceeds to devour every word and every line that the author writes, and because there is a spiritual affinity, he absorbs and readily digests everything. The author has cast a spell over him, and he is glad to be under the spell, and in time his own voice and manner and way of smiling and way of talking become like the author’s own. Thus he truly steeps himself in his literary lover and derives from these books sustenance for his soul.
But reading, of course, does not end with finding one favorite author.
After a few years, the spell is over and he grows a little tired of this lover and seeks for new literary lovers, and after he has had three or four lovers and completely eaten them up, he emerges as an author himself. There are many readers who never fall in love, like many young men and women who flirt around and are incapable of forming a deep attachment to a particular person. They can read any and all authors, and they never amount to anything.
With all these said, reading, however, must not be treated as the utmost important thing of one’s life. In How Proust Can Change Your Life, Alain de Botton illustrated this with the great French novelist Marcel Proust’s words:
As long as reading is for us the instigator whose magic keys have opened the door to those dwelling-places deep within us that we would not have known how to enter, its role in our lives is salutary. It becomes dangerous on the other hand, when, instead of awakening us to the personal life of the mind, reading tends to take its place, when the truth no longer appears to us an ideal which we can realise only by the intimate progress of our own thought and the efforts of our heart, but as something material, deposited between the leaves of books like a honey fully prepared by others and which we need only take the trouble to reach down from the shelves of libraries and then sample passively in a perfect repose of mind and body.
Reading is breaking out of the physical prison time and space trap us in, and finding one’s literary lover and master, and forming affinity with his/her soul.
Reading is not what parents, teachers, society or anyone tell you to read, or what you feels what you have to read to be “educated”.
Reading does not end with finding your favorite author. It is an ongoing journey.
Reading books is not life. It provides direction, incitement, and magic doors through which you awaken your own thinking and perception of your own life.
Lin Yutang may have died on March 26, 1976. You may not even have heard of him before you read this. But his teachings, his spirit, his essence of a free reader lives on.
And for that I love and honor him.