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The benefits of reading, by Jacques Barzun

Jacques Barzun (1907-2012)

Extracts from:

Jacques Barzun

Begin Here : The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning


[ Jacques Martin Barzun (1907 – 2012) was a French-American historian known for his studies of the history of ideas and cultural history. He wrote about a wide range of subjects, including baseball, mystery novels, and classical music, and was also known as a philosopher of education. The historical retrospective From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present (2000), widely considered his magnum opus, was published when he was 93 years old. Wikipedia ]

Of What Use the Classics Today ?

St. John's College, July 17, 1987

"The first service that a classic does is to connect the past with the present by stirring up feelings akin to those that once moved human beings — people who were in part very much like ourselves and in part very unlike. That is an interesting experience in itself — as interesting as traveling to Tibet or studying the home life of the kangaroo. It is in fact travel, travel in time as well as in space. (...)

But why, after all, learn to read differently by tackling the classics ? The answer is simple: in order to live in a wider world. Wider than that ? Wider than the one that comes through the routine of our material lives and through the paper and the factual magazines — Psychology Today, House and Garden, Sports Illustrated; wider also than friends' and neighbors' plans and gossip; wider especially than one's business or profession. For nothing is more narrowing than one's own shop, and it grows ever more so as one bends the mind and energies to succeed.

This is particularly true today, when each profession has become a cluster of specialties continually subdividing. A lawyer is not a jurist, he is a tax lawyer, or a dab at trusts and estates. The work itself is a struggle with a mass of jargon, conventions, and numbers that have no meaning outside the specialty. The whole modern world moves among systems and abstractions superimposed on reality, a vast make-believe, though its results are real enough in one's life if one does not know and follow these ever-shifting rules of the game.

Since it is a game and a make-believe, anybody who wants access to human life and its possibilities — to thoughts and feelings as they occur natively or by deep reflection — must use another channel. One such channel can be cut by using the classics of literature and philosophy; a second can be made through the fine arts and music.

I say "made" and "cut" not "found," because of that "thickness" to which I keep coming back. The great works do not yield their cargo on demand. But if one reads them with concentration (for one "reads" works of art, too), the effort gives us possession of a vast store of vicarious experience; we come face to face with the whole range of perception that mankind has attained and that is denied by our unavoidably artificial existence. Through this experience we escape from the prison cell, professional or business or suburban. It is like gaining a second life."


An American Commencement

New England Conservatory of Music, May 17, 1987

"Reading of course can easily be nothing more than a way to kill time; but if it is calculated and intense, it is a steady extension of one's life. If life is measured by consciousness, one whose mind is full lives longer than one whose mind is empty — just as

one who is awake 18 hours a day lives longer than one who sleeps away every 12 hours. You can add to life by adding to the quantity of conscious moments through reading.

This is true no matter what you read — history, poetry, novels, essays, letters, diaries, memoirs, criticism. One curious result of the habit is that after a time, even the reading of trash — and certainly the reading of newspapers — (in short, the reading that kills time) — even that brings with it some addition of value, because the mind is equipped to extract some good thing or other from the low-grade substance.

You will ask, How does reading-with-intent help to build a Self ? If all it does is eke out your experience with that of others, why isn't your own sufficient ? Why doesn't it organize itself into inner strength ? What is lacking is the contrast, the otherness, the novelty and strangeness; the shock of difference and the recognition of sameness; in other words, the work of the imagination.

For to read intelligently and profitably, your imagination must work every minute, reconstructing the lives, events, and emotions depicted in print. If this is true, you can see why filling the mind with a vision of what happened to other people, or of what is happening right now elsewhere, is an antidote to the narrowing effect of a profession. It reminds you at critical moments that the present concern, the irritating predicament, the stupid mess created by an individual act or an institutional rule, is not the sum total of the universe.

It gives you, as we say, perspective, a sense of proportion. These words in fact refer to that second Self, that solid Self, full of experience, which stands like a back-stop behind the every-day Self, which is engaged in dealing with the vicissitudes of life. That second Self is of course a permanent acquisition. You don't lose it like an umbrella and miss it the next time it rains. You carry your strong identity with you through the whole course of life.

I have so far stressed the use of a cultivated Self in cushioning the defects and annoyances of existence, because at your stage of life utility is doubtless uppermost in your mind — and rightly so. But the cultivated Self is also a source of joy. With it, the idea of leisure gains all its meaning; it is not empty time, but time in which the mind takes pleasurable exercise, as the body does in jogging or swimming: No need to look for "leisure-time activities," so-called. One can be perfectly idle and also contented, self-entertained.

When Walt Whitman said, "I loafe and invite my soul," his soul was not a vacuum or a jumble; else he would have loafed the shortest possible time and looked for company and a pack of cards. To put it the other way round, to a cultivated mind the boredom of solitude is unknown. Such a mind can be bored only by other people; and those other people are very few, because ordinary bores, like trashy books, often contain matter of interest.


But one last, quick question: isn't this goal of self-sufficiency a piece of selfishness ? What about the horrors of the Middle East and of drug addiction ? We are not separate islands in the sea, as John Donne reminded us; therefore these public concerns are ours too, in some way and to some degree. A main way is as citizens and voters, and in that capacity the chances are good that a mind rich in vicarious experience will yield sounder

judgment than one cultivated only by the newspaper.

Part of that good judgment will be to recognize ability in those one votes for; another part will be to know that ignorant opinions about what to do in complex situations are worse than useless — they are dangerous. "Cultivate your garden" also means: attend to what you are fit to do and delegate the rest. The corner where you are and whose rights and wrongs you know at first hand is a large enough field for your best endeavors at making the world a better place."

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