According to my parents, I was not a child that took to reading. They tried a lot of tactics to get me interested in books, before finally finding some success with comic books. Even then, I have remained a slow reader, who occasionally struggles with word order and spellings. However, what I have lacked in natural speed, I have made up for with determination, and now I list reading as my favoured pastime.
Lately though, I have been dissatisfied with my reading. Too often, I think, I have picked up books because they just happened to be in front of me, or because, in my laziness, I fell back upon some comfortable genre, instead of choosing my books with careful intelligence. Lately, I have found no challenge in the books I’ve read.
I had been having these thoughts a lot as last year came to an end. Then, by happenstance, I found myself in a small charity bookshop in my wife’s hometown. Upon the shelf, I saw a small red volume entitled Sesame and Lillies by John Ruskin. I knew of Ruskin more by reputation than acquaintance, having read only a single lecture by him, but I find him an intriguing figure. He spoke a lot about art and its relationship to society.
One of the interesting things about buying really old books is that they do not have blurbs. This book was old enough that it contained no information at all on when it was printed. So, knowing nothing but the author, I turned over £1 to the man at the counter and took my new book home.
It is by sheer coincidence that the first two lectures (of the three in the book) are about ‘what to read’. In truth, that topic is just a launching point to wander over a variety of ideas, but it still struck me as a very strange coincidence.
At the same time I had been considering my reading, I had also been considering starting a ‘Commonplace Book’, that is my own collection of wisdom that I have gleaned from books. So, I began my commonplace book with some quotes I found in Ruskin. I will share a couple here, on the subject of reading:
No book is worth anything which is not worth much; nor is it serviceable, until it has been read, and re-read, and loved, and loved again; and marked, so that you can refer to the passages you want in it, as a soldier can seize the weapon he needs in an armoury, or a housewife bring the spice she needs from her store.
That to use books rightly, was to go to them for help: to appeal to them, when our knowledge and power of thought failed; to be led by them into the wider sight, purer conception than our own and receive from them the united sentence of the judges and councils of all time, against our solitary and unstable opinion.
So, my goal for this year is to challenge myself with my reading, to actively seek out books that contain wisdom or that will challenge my thinking. I will still read science-fiction, fantasy, and adventure fiction, but only if I have strong reason to believe those works to be above average (why bother reading the average?). We shall see how I get on.