4. Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted

I think it goes without saying that my life has been full of books. But reading goes beyond literature, doesn’t it? Newspapers, magazines, comic books, bumper stickers, cereal boxes, email, blog posts, novels, short stories, poetry, music scores, instruction manuals, they all come in formats other than what we traditionally call books. And honestly, most of it I have forgotten. Except, as they say, you never forget anything; it’s only misfiled. My archive storage room must be packed to the gills.

As far as being slow-witted. Well, I suspect that in myself, and also in Montaigne, the appearance of slow-wittedness is more a propos. In the same way that Jack Benny worked extremely hard, with no small amount of technical ability, to appear as a horribly bad violinist, I believe the trick here as it applies to living well is to not appear quick-witted, that is, to not be the first to interject with a barbed comment, to be slow to engage in sarcasm or irony – since they are so often, particularly in print, misconstrued and/or deliberately misinterpreted. I cannot remember where I read it now, but somewhere two rules of true victory were imparted to me: first, to understand that you cannot understand everything, and second, that being right is the most effective way to lose an argument. It is enough, I think, to be perceived as dark, pessimistic and peevish, simply for insisting upon a doctrine of personal responsibility. To be completely without friends, all that is required is adding a sharp tongue and speaking with irony or sarcasm about those sacred cows that others find dear, and about which they permit no humor or levity. The obvious targets here are government, politics, religion, morality, life’s purpose, the sanctity of the home, work or marriage, and other life and death issues about which people are so often willing to extemporize or sermonize, and find it extremely difficult to remain objective.

I recommend reading. I would go so far as to say that if by the end of the third grade, you do not love to read – not merely to complete assignments, but to gain access to knowledge and ideas beyond those provided in the “nurture” that surrounds you – your lot in life will be more unpleasant and boring than necessary. Reading gives perspective, no less than physical traveling. Both take you out of your comfort zone – if you read or travel well. And perspective is essential to understanding both yourself and the world in which you exist. Of course, some will say that a single book, like the Christian Bible, is sufficient unto itself as a sole reading subject. In my experience, no worldview than cannot stand being seen from multiple angles, that cannot manage scrutiny from external, non-affiliated sources, is capable of free-standing.

We have as a culture drifted away from reading, for reading’s sake. Publishing houses, even when they resort to electronic-only versions, see fewer and fewer purchases every day. Everything has become so immediate. Reading anything of any length simply takes too much of our precious time. Time for what, I’m not sure? More work as holy activity? Busyness? Time at the gym trying to convince ourselves and others that human beings need no longer age and die?

People don’t even get to the “first fold” of the newspaper anymore – you know, that top portion of the newspaper where the big stories lead with the worm, hooking you onward with “more on Page A11”? Online, the optimum tweet is 100 characters. On Facebook, it’s only 40 characters. A sound byte or quick buzz to catch your attention. But is there even the promise of anything deeper, more truth or insight? Not really. We don’t have time for anything but the headlines. And the headlines don’t even need to be accurate, truthful or reflect any of the content that follows. “You provide the pictures,” quipped Charles Foster Kane, channeling William Randolph Hearst, “and I’ll provide the war.”

So what are we “reading”? What are we to read? Today’s bestsellers? Western civilization’s “great books”? If we want to remain readers, we have to make a commitment to some standard – because honestly there is just too much flotsam and jetsam out there to navigate. Interestingly enough, using flotsam (i.e., material that detaches from a ship due to damage, leakage, or other ‘unconscious’ entropy) and jetsam (i.e., material deliberately ejected or tossed from a ship through ‘conscious’ effort) seems an apt metaphor for what’s out there to read. It is from amongst the floating garbage of today’s glut of information that we must find useful remnants (or reminders) of our culture, our purpose for existence, the point of learning anything at all.

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