I can’t stress enough one lesson I’ve learned the hard way, over and over again, my whole life. You can read so much so well, carefully considering the author’s most subtle points, bringing them into dialogue with the rich poetry and prose of other thinkers, illustrating all these amazing thoughts through memorable teaching and highly crafted writing, adding your own contribution for the ages. You can read so much so well, be an incredible scholar, teacher, writer, and—I daresay—thinker, and still be a complete fucking idiot.
I don’t say this out of any particular anger at anyone, not even myself. I mean, if I were to be angry at myself, I might get to be “an incredible scholar, teacher, writer” and “thinker” according to the person who wrote the above paragraph, and that’s quite a few compliments I definitely don’t deserve.
What’s gnawing on my mind is this concern: Do books really make us wiser? They don’t necessarily stop conspiracy theories or genocide. In some cases, a literary surface of high class and higher thoughts has advanced some of the cruelest, most senseless causes the world has ever seen. With more experienced readers or academics, issues which require especial sensitivity can be reduced to complicated jargon or become games over who is correct about the most trivial point.
I can’t explain to you what exactly makes someone wise. I can say this. Some people who I consider wise (you can feel free to inhale an entire salt shaker here) have used books in specific ways, even if they themselves hate reading. Those ways are worth reflecting on, I believe:
There is no Frigate like a Book (1263) Emily Dickinson There is no Frigate like a Book To take us Lands away Nor any Coursers like a Page Of prancing Poetry— This Traverse may the poorest take Without oppress of Toll— How frugal is the Chariot That bears the Human soul
Dickinson’s poem has a surface of the “Books can take you anywhere!” sort, the kind of thing we tell children to avoid buying them a Nintendo Switch. In recent years, I’ve become more enamored by cornball rhetoric employed by parents and teachers, but I still don’t like that line. Books helped Florence and Paris come that much more to life when I visited, but Florence and Paris would have rocked no matter what.
Books are effort. I think one reason why my drafts for published papers don’t quite measure up to my other writing and teaching is that I can’t yet properly express the intellectual labor involved in unpacking meaning or identifying problems in the first place. Showing that strain isn’t just important, it isn’t just what a scholar does. Reading essentially is that strain. Dickinson speaks to this while indulging a fantastic simile: There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away. A book isn’t a flying carpet or a teleporter. It’s like a frigate, which could refer to any light craft, but typically designates a warship. What kind of work is reading? It’s like sailing against the ocean for days or weeks. It entails knowing how to respond to trying circumstances in order to stay on course, make good time, or even defeat an enemy.
That almost sounds insane the way I’ve put it. Who reads a book to defeat an enemy? All those guys on Reddit saying “I studied the blade” while posting memes nonstop? But I’m thinking about the times I could credibly say a book spoke to me. I’d write out a line or passage from it and think about experiences or thoughts I had and how they compared. I was trying to identify what I valued, and in the process, I may have identified a problem I hadn’t seen before. Going to different lands isn’t a result of the book alone—it depends on the reader.
Dickinson’s next lines have an earthy power, but do not imply the movement from continent to continent that the frigate does. “A Page / Of prancing Poetry” far surpasses “Coursers”—like frigates, these could be horses known for swiftness, or they could be warhorses. Poetry also is born of struggle, no matter how fancy or “prancing” it is. Again, I think agency is being passed to the reader here. If frigates entail knowing how to sail, coursers entail horsemanship. Dickinson establishes that there is some sort of skill involved in reading, and I do believe this is true, but I don’t know someone advertising themselves as someone who will teach you how to read is anything other than a grift. There’s a process and skill that needs to be respected with regard to reading well, sure. There are people who are much better to read with than others. But as a close-reader who has trained others in how to practice this “art,” I don’t advertise myself that way. I much prefer to say there are things in which I’m actively interested—I have a set of moral and intellectual priorities, not only a skill with a certain type of rhetoric—and that reading well is just one part of developing a sensitivity to the world around me, the impact and aspirations of the past, and what is entailed in envisioning a better future.
For her part, Dickinson, while I’m having grand thoughts about reading inspired by her, tightens the circle of the poem. She initially likened books to expensive, elaborate craft. Then she described them as being like a horse. She ends with a much more meager—to use her word, “frugal,” image: This Traverse may the poorest take / Without oppress of Toll / How frugal is the Chariot / Which bears the human soul. This is a far cry from the “Books can take you anywhere you want to be!” rhetoric. The Chariot is “frugal;” what’s being avoided is a mere toll; the human soul can’t really do any better than this. Books aren’t just struggle, they aren’t just work and skill—they’re also necessary.
In other words, if I ask “Why don’t books make a better world?” I’m asking the wrong question. The question is really how reading, used well, may help us make the choices we need to make. If that question is valid, another follows immediately: since reading won’t always help, in what ways can reading badly or reading the wrong things make the world worse? All we have are words. When people say there is no need for reading, that only experience and action matter, what they’re really saying is only one set of experiences and actions matter—their own. They have words they do not want challenged. When people read widely to expand their consciousness and are still blind to the problems others face, that means they’re doing the right thing but not enough of it. All we have are words, and words tell us they’re not enough by giving us more words.