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“The Pleasures of Reading”

Epstein, Joseph | The Hudson Review, Winter 1996


pp. 539 - 555

Reading is “a serious act.” Sensual, too. Reading (as opposed to being read to) allows you to go exactly at the pace you want. (540): “I have never met a good writer who wasn’t also a penetrating reader; and every good writer, with varying degrees of consciousness and subtlety, is also a plagiarist.” (542): Justice Holmes, like Epstein, had to finish every book he started. His worry was that at the gate of heaven St. Peter would quiz him on his reading. (545): Proust claimed that books were better company than friends: “One need engage in no small talk with a book . . . no greetings in the hall, no expressions of gratitude, or excuses for delayed meetings. With books, unlike with friends, no sense of obligation exists. We are with them only because we absolutely wish to be with them. Nor do we have to laugh, politely, at their attempts at wit. As Proust says, ‘No more deference: we laugh at what Molière says only to the degree that we find him funny; when he bores us we are not afraid to appear bored, and when we decidedly have had enough of being with him, we put him back in his place as bluntly as if he had neither genius nor fame.'” Novels pull you into a world, invite you to dwell in it–which, if the novel is any good–you do not want to leave. (547): Proust writes of his emotions upon finishing a book: “Those beings [its characters] to whom one had given more of one’s attention and tenderness than to people in real life, not always daring to admit how much one loved them . . . those people for whom one had panted and sobbed, one would never see again . . . .’ (549): I read in hope of pleasure, including aesthetic pleasure at good style. Along with the love of style, I read in the hope of laughter, exaltation, insight, enhanced consciousness, and dare I say it, wisdom.” Finally, you want a sheath (Cather’s word) to “capture the rich, unpredictable, astonishing flow of life.” It’s not just ideas you want: naturalism, say, but the truths “known to the human heart and soul, the truths of sensibility.” Eliot called this the “sensitive” intelligence–the kind of thing you get out of a book that you can’t immediately put into words. Or Richard Wright: “new ways of looking and seeing.” “The impulse to dream.” The bottom line for Epstein is that reading helps one gain “the literary point of view,” which is “a worldly-wise skepticism” according to which you never know “the last word about any human heart” (Henry James). The literary point of view puts the brain in service to the heart. “What wide reading teaches is the richness, the complexity, the mystery of life.” It’s (contrary to literary Theory) apolitical.