Twelve Rules for the Bookish Life
(Of course, the bookish life needs no rules.)
With gratitude for half a decade of service alongside the Comment team, and in particular for the mentorship and friendship of Brian Dijkema and Jamie Smith, two of the most bookish men I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. May your tribes increase!
- Read widely. If it be strange, bid it welcome. Your hopes of becoming more capacious and hospitable will depend less on the depth than the breadth of your “to-read” list.
- Always have a “to-read” list on the go. Even one that’s absurdly, impossibly long. If you believe in heaven: there’ll be time.
- That said: life is short. If you don’t want to finish a book: don’t. You may not be ready for it. (Or the book is rubbish. There’s always that possibility.)
- Readymade lists of “Great Texts” are guides for the wise, and absolutes for fools. Don’t sweat your ability as a judge. You’ll know a good book after one read. You’ll know a great work by patience and perseverance and the joys they produce after a lifetime of rereading.
- Sorry, but reading books—even great ones—will not make you a better person. If that were the case, there’d be fewer illiterate saints and well-read assholes. (Remember, they found great books in Nazi trenches.) So read, and with fear and trembling ask the Spirit to use even this to your edification.
- Listen first, then respond. Reading is not a business meeting: the less of an agenda you have, the better. NB: If you’ve gone to grad school, my apologies: you’ll have some unlearning to do.
- Patronize the local library often. Unless of course you are on the run because of overdue fines. Then pay those first or move to a new town.
- Let books flood your home and wash ashore on coffee tables, dressers, and nightstands. Your kids and grandkids will, one day, thank you (even if your spouse, in the present, does not).
- Invest in the future. Buy and borrow books you have no time to read with the inkling that some strange, yet-unknown descendant of yours might.
- Find a place to read where you can learn the art of appearing still yet moving with great speed over vast distances, quiet yet in the full thrum of a resonant inner life.
- Reading is not solitary. You will break bread with many authors who, although long dead, will seem more alive to you than your neighbours.
- But even this is no excuse to escape. And escape is one of the most dangerous temptations of the bookish life. To read as an escape is to surrender and be imprisoned by the ideal of no-place and no one. Books should never be a fire exit from the slow burn of a humdrum existence. Rather, they should provide a “momentary stay against confusion,” helping you return to the real world empowered to reimagine your particular place there, seeing with new eyes that particularly crooked neighbour with your own particularly crooked heart.