Work is the curse of the reading class, or the virtue of reading

Work is the curse of the reading class.

How many books did you read last year? According to some reports, one in four Americans did not read a single book in the last twelve months. Three out of the four who did read in the last year read only one book. But the reports are even more dismal when a distinction is made between any books and books of literature. For example, books on business, cooking, gardening or self-help are in a different category from books of literature. Further, books on business and marketing by Tim Ferriss, Seth Godin or Simon Sinek are not considered literary works. Books by Dante, Plato and Shakespeare are works of high literature. Books of literature by American authors include Flannery O’Connor, Robert Frost and Thornton Wilder.

My own reading pattern shadows the national trend. This discourages me. Years ago I read more than 50 books a year. In addition to that, I used to read several literary journals, magazines and newspapers on the bus ride to the office each day. It was a delicious and robust period of time. But life interrupted this reading regimen. A dream job, mega commute, cross-country move, career change, new job at a legacy media organization, and more commuting disrupted my reading habits.

It is a struggle for me to completely read one single book from cover to cover. The desk in front of the window holds eight books. I may have to return all these to the public library partially read. Or renew them. The library must be weary of me renewing a copy of a theological book. I must have renewed it several times over the last few months. One report I read stated the reason people do not read books is due to their busy work/life balance.

Great disruption.

The interruption to the reading habit is due in part to the daily commute. 90 minutes a day spent traveling from home to work. Public transit would be nice. However, no public transit system services the rural communities surrounded by cultivated fields and farmland. Travel accounts for more than 15 days of my time each year. And then there are the long hours of production work. The job is mentally demanding. My fatigued mind only desires to turn on the record player and go to sleep when I return home.

Solution.

Most Americans spend more than two hours each day on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter. That equals more than 40 days a year. From an economic stand point that seems like a lot of wasted productivity. What that means in practical terms is that my social media feeds are on life support. I do not spend time on Facebook or Twitter at all. LinkedIn occasionally. And I deleted my Instagram account. Eliminating social media activity allowed me to reclaim some of the time lost to commuting and work.

Great books.

A second action put into practice during the last few years included reading great books of literature. Mostly. Plato’s The Republic, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery, The Autobiographies of Frederick Douglas, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina are some of the books read during the last year and a half. The classical education curriculum of my children helped me form a list of great books to read. I added a few books to the list to include Asian and Near Eastern studies. I explored Basho’s The Narrow Road, an anthology of Rumi, Hafix and Lalla, and Ryokan’s Sky Above, Great Wind. Most recently I attempted to read and compare three different translations of Dante’s Divine Comedy. An ambitious task that I failed. Ended up focusing on selected cantos for comparison before the books were shuffled back to the public library.

The virtue of reading.

Why is reading books, especially, great books, important? The virtue of being well-read is the goal. Do not leave it up to the academics and professionals to read great books. C. S. Lewis wrote that “the simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism.” He continued by encouraging readers to acquire firsthand knowledge of the source material rather than to rely on secondhand commentary. Being a well-read individual has the potential to foster a civilized society. But you must be vigilant, designate time, pick up a book and read it cover to cover.

Three things I learned from Christopher Hitchens

This morning, after reading the news of the passing of celebrity intellectual Christopher Hitchens, I reblogged a few items and quotes on my Tumblr page. [1] [2] It was not his rhetoric [3] that attracted me to his public persona. Nor is it his writings that attracted me to him. I have not read all his books. Though I do confess that I subscribe to The Atlantic for the sheer pleasure of reading his articles.

What enamors me to Hitchens is his justo to engage in the Great Debate. [4] That inspires me. Where most of our culture retreats from serious discussion of issues of faith, philosophy and religion–preferring reductionist thought and banal entertainment–Hitchens stoked the fires of conversation and debate with wit, passion and intrigue. In reflecting what I might learn from the life of Christopher Hitchens, I feel quite inadequate. There is so much to learn from him, yet, here are three short thoughts:

  1. If you are a mediocre or even good writer, your words will survive you.
  2. Friends will shape you and your thinking.
  3. Avoid being defined by your critics and fans.

Writers and public intellectuals will compose grand obituaries with wise thoughts, expressions and reflections. Their words will be published today and throughout the weekend in the world’s largest newspapers and magazines. And then there are a lot of us beyond the periphery of the spotlight and public square who in some small way are affected by his legacy. To conclude, as one writer concluded his obituary, [5] Christopher Eric Hitchens (1949-2011). R.I.P.

NOTES: [1] “I became a journalist…” and “to remember friendship is to recall those conversations…” and Postscript: Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011. [2] To some who know me beyond the façade of blogs and social media, this may or may not appear an odd display. [3] He often offered false assumptions and careless conclusions in his arguments. In this, I refer to rhetoric as it relates to classical education (rhetoric builds on grammar and logic) not polemics. [4] The Great Debate is more than a book or video (featuring Hitchens), it is an age-old debate of the existence of God. [5] “Christopher Hitchens Has Died”