What makes us read? Literary bright lights weigh in
Original thinkers in the book world speak off the cuff in a three-part IDEAS series
* Originally published on June 26, 2020. This is the final episode in a three-part series on IDEAS called Reading With a Grain of Salt.
We make many assumptions about reading.
For example, that reading a lot means you're smart. That books are objects to be treasured. That reading is good for you. And that there are certain books you should read, while others aren't worth paying attention to.
Writer Barbara Nichol explores all these assumptions with writers, critics, scholars and journalists — all of whom are widely recognized for their insights, erudition and original minds.
Here are some excerpts from the third and final episode of her series, Reading With A Grain Of Salt.
Journalist and novelist Caleb Crain on why women read more than men
"There's some evidence that women spend more time reading than men do. It's historically been true that the novel, for example … leisure reading, most of the readers have been women."
"In the 18th century in England and in the 19th century in America, this was a trope of the culture. Pundits would warn that women's morals are being loosened by all these novels they're reading, especially those that have been translated from French.
"I think more likely the explanation is that women were not allowed in the workplace. They had more time on their own. These days, you wouldn't think that's true, but women still are bigger readers than men. I don't know whether that's just because their habits haven't shifted, even though the culture has shifted, or whether there's some underlying reason."
Author John Carey on the benefits of book clubs
"I think it's the kind of equivalent to reading literature as an undergraduate. You get into discussion with your fellow readers and with someone who knows a bit more than you do.
"My wife actually belongs to a book club, they meet once a month. They read, often two books. They dot around from modern novels to classics, and they get about — I gather — 10 people at a time. The whole club is 15. So it's a restricted number. More like a university seminar, really. And from what I hear, the discussions are rather like that.
"When they talk, they discover what other people think and that's important. It can suddenly make you feel: 'Huh, I hadn't thought of that. That's a new way of looking at this bit of the novel.' When my wife comes back from her book club, that's the kind of thing she says. Had you thought of that? And I often hadn't thought that. I may not agree, of course, but at least it's a discussion — a real discussion because it's got a new idea in it."
Fran Lebowitz on the intellectual task of the writer
"Writing, of all the art forms, is the most directly cognitive. It is 100 per cent cognitive, which is not true of other art forms. We think in words.
"When I was young and I first came to New York, I met a lot of painters. I was always so shocked that almost every painter I've ever known listens to music in their studio. This struck me as unbelievable. How could you concentrate when you have music playing? And then I realized that painters are not trying to concentrate. They're trying to un-concentrate, you know. They're trying to take leave of their senses. And so that is why they can listen to music. Visual artists are trying to detach from the cognitive process — and writers are not."
Suggested books on reading and writing
On Histories And Stories by A.S. Byatt
Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books by Maureen Corrigan
The Pleasure Of Reading: 43 Writers on the Discovery of Reading and the Books that Inspired Them, edited by Antonia Fraser.
Howards End Is On The Landing: A Year of Reading from Home by Susan Hill
How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard
The Year Of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller
My Reading Life by Pat Conroy
Proust And the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf
A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel
Nothing Remains The Same: Rereading And Remembering by Wendy Lesser
Tolstoy And The Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch
How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen
Books: A Memoir by Larry McMurtry
The Merry Heart: Reflections on Reading Writing, and the World of Books by Robertson Davies
Reading Like A Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose
How To Read A Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren
Great Books by David Denby
Books For Living by Will Schwalbe
The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading by Phyllis Rose
The Lost Art Of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time by David L. Ulin
The Books In My Life by Henry Miller
Literary Taste: How to Form It by Arnold Bennett
Guests in this episode:
Fran Lebowitz is the author of Metropolitan Life and Social Studies, The Fran Lebowitz Reader and the children's book Mr. Chas and Lisa Sue Meet The Pandas. Lebowitz is the subject of an upcoming Netflix series directed by Martin Scorsese.
Nick Hornby is an Oscar-nominated screenwriter and award-winning author. Among his novels: Funny Girl, High Fidelity, A Long Way Down, About A Boy and Juliet, Naked. His non-fiction books include 31 Songs and Fever Pitch. The Complete Polysyllabic Spree is a collection of his columns in The Believer magazine, for which he continues to write. He also wrote the Emmy Award-winning television series State Of The Union. In 2010, he co-founded the children's writing charity The Ministry of Stories in East London.
Sarah Bakewell is the author of biographical and philosophical works including At The Existentialist Cafe: freedom, being and apricot cocktails and How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography.
John Carey is the author of many books including The Accidental Professor: An Oxford Life in Books, What Good Are The Arts?, The Intellectuals and The Masses, and A Little History of Poetry. He is the emeritus Merton Professor of Literature at the University of Oxford and a fellow of the British Academy and of The Royal Society of Literature.
Abigail Williams is a professor of English at the University of Oxford and author of The Social Life of Books: Reading Together in the Eighteenth-Century Home.
Caleb Crain is the author of the novels Necessary Errors and Overthrow, as well as the scholarly study American Sympathy: Men, Friendship and Literature in the New Nation. He has written for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Harper's, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, n+1, and The New York Times Book Review. His blog is called Steamboats Are Ruining Everything.
Michael Dirda is a weekly book columnist for The Washington Post and recipient of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He is the author of four collections of essays, the memoir An Open Book, which received the 2004 Ohioana Award for non-fiction, and On Conan Doyle, which received a 2012 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. His current project is an appreciation of late 19th- and early 20th-century British popular fiction, tentatively titled The Great Age of Storytelling.
* This episode was produced by Barbara Nichol. Interview excerpts have been edited for clarity and length.