From The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, by the estimable Alan Jacobs:
So one reason I usually decline to give reading recommendations is that I don’t want to encourage such habits of mind [reading to cross books off a list]. But there’s a positive counterpart to this negative reason: my commitment to one dominant, overarching, nearly definitive principle for reading: Read at Whim. I learned this principle from the essayist and poet Randall Jarrell, who once met a scholar, a learned man and a critic, who commented that he read Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim every year. Jarrell’s response:
“The critic said that once a year he read Kim; and he read Kim, it was plain, at whim: not to teach, not to criticize, just for love – he read it, as Kipling wrote it, just because he liked to, wanted to, couldn’t help himself. To him it wasn’t a means to a lecture or article, it was an end; he read it not for anything he could get out of it, but for itself. And isn’t this what the work of art demands of us? The work of art, Rilke said, says to us always: You must change your life. It demands of us that we too see things as ends, not as means – that we too know them and love them for their own sake. This change is beyond us, perhaps, during the active, greedy, and powerful hours of our lives; but during the contemplative and sympathetic hours of our reading, our listening, our looking, it is surely within our power, if we choose to make it so, if we choose to let one part of our nature follow its natural desires. So I say to you, for a closing sentence, Read at whim! read at whim!”
I recently read a book that I had hoped to review for Aslan’s Library. It became clear to me relatively quickly that it wouldn’t make the cut, and I was tempted to lay it aside so as to better “use” my reading time. Except that I was thoroughly enjoying it. It was a good book – just not what we’re about here. It just so happened that I was reading Jacobs’ book at the same time, and stumbled across this passage. I was positively delighted to receive permission to finish the book – not for any larger purpose than the enjoyment of the art itself.
Yes, we’re all about choosing the best books for ourselves and our children. But it’s so easy to get legalistic and list-minded, which frankly sucks the joy out of books. And isn’t that why we read in the first place? So by all means, use our recommendations and consult your favorite lists. But most importantly, have fun! “Read at whim! read at whim!“