Article published on August 10, 2017.
The next of our ‘Author meets Reviewer’ series finds Damon Young being quizzed by Jade Craddock about his book The Art of Reading, a celebratory tribute to one of our most undervalued skills.
Jade Craddock: The Art of Reading is something of a love letter to books and reading, what is the greatest gift reading has given you?
Damon Young: I met my wife arguing about Michel Foucault. Also a lifetime of adventures: cerebral and visceral, goading and arousing. And more. Always more.
JC: The book explores ways to be a better reader, is there a right way to read and a wrong way to read?
DY: Annoyingly, there’s no divine command here; no natural law. Reading well means ordinary, everyday habits: what to pick up, what to toss in the bin; when to be mesmerised and when to nit-pick; whose recommendations to listen to, and whose to block your ears to. (Stop. Recommending. Paulo. Coelho. To. Me.) For all the talk of virtue, it’s not a pearl-clutching morality quiz.
JC: There is a lot of emphasis on the skills needed to become a better reader, but how important is it to enjoy reading first and foremost?
DY: Bloody essential. Before grammar and spelling, before theories of genre or archetypes: we sit on the lap of someone who cares for us, and we listen. The art of reading begins with this intimacy.
JC: At what stage should these skills/virtues be nurtured, are they values that should be taught to children/teens as they begin to read or only later when a love of reading has developed?
DY: Love comes first. But kids can definitely be shown the worth of reading well. Not by tut-tutting at their choices, but by giving them the run of libraries, and reading alongside them—with plenty of gusto and questions.
JC: The teen years are often a crucial time in cementing a love of reading but arguably this is also the time when reading loses some of its appeal as students are made to read critically in schools and colleges and the simple pleasure of engaging with a book for enjoyment and escapism comes second to analysing and deconstructing it, what can be done to allow students to become better, more informed readers yet maintain this basic sentimental connection with books?
DY: I was alienated from school, and rejected ‘serious reading’ because of my wannabe bad boy persona. This was partly my own psyche (troubles at home), but it was also the books on offer: they were fine literary novels, but foreign to an angry teenage boy. What kept my toes dipped in literature? Cyberpunk and horror novels, comics, and the occasional philosophical novel (like David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life.) I was happy to analyse those. Put another way: literary criticism is not the enemy of pleasure. We just need to find the right works to enjoy.
JC: Turning specifically to The Art of Reading, is the book aimed at all readers, or are there some who will benefit more than others from the advice offered?
DY: The Art of Reading is a bibliophile’s companion. Those of us who most love reading are often most in need of a kick in the bum. We can become conservative. My hope is that The Art of Reading appeals to anyone who enjoys reading—but who wants to enjoy more: more bravely, patiently, curiously, and so on.
JC: The book is separated into six virtues, curiosity, patience, courage, pride, temperance, justice; is there one virtue that is more important than the others in being a great reader or do you need to have all the skills in equal measure to get the most out of reading?
DY: For Aristotle, justice is the most important virtue: an excellence in its own right, but also all the virtues put together. For example, to get the most from Ulysses, I have to avoid haste, and revel in my own critical intellect, and be braver about my literary hobby horses, and so on. But: my personal favourite is curiosity. I’m a snooper.
JC: Taking the virtues in turn, you speak of the benefit of curiosity as helping to uncover the ‘specificity of a craft’ but also warn against the risk of being too curious and leaving the work too far behind, how do readers strike a balance between the two?
DY: It helps to read others who fail, to get a feel for their blunders. For example, I discuss the philosopher Martin Heidegger, becoming almost too curious with the Presocratics. In the end, he’s interpreting them but finding only Heidegger. Reading is a gregarious adventure, and others’ shortcomings can shed light on our own.
JC: I loved the chapter on patience and you mention therein the need for perseverance, that reading the whole text offers something otherwise unobtainable, but some readers like to gauge a book within the first few chapters or first hundred or so pages and put a book aside if it isn’t working for them, should readers aim to stick with books right through to the end regardless in order to see that bigger picture?
DY: I’m sure there will be plenty of readers out there who argue life is short, why waste it on a book that you’re not enjoying, so is patience really always a virtue in this case? Patience is about suffering for some good end. The trick is knowing what the good is, and why it’s important. For example, I read Immanuel Kant because his contribution to ethics is powerful (though not persuasive). But his prose is often deadening. To get the ideas, I have to put up with boredom. In the same way, I read Henry James because his novels are agonisingly finicky and slow, but also brilliant psychological and social portraits. Some works are iffy; their goods meagre. Life’s too short to read The Da Vinci Code as history or even psychology. (It is for humans, not about them.) But for me, life’s also too short to miss out on Kant’s ideas and James’ tales.
JC: Endings are also an important part of the virtue of courage, the way in which readers handle the infiniteness of a story, seeking resolution and unity, books with open endings are often deemed less satisfactory for this reason but do they perhaps make for a better and more honest reading experience?
DY: When we crave neat conclusions—happy or sad, tragic or comedic—we’re sometimes giving in to cowardice. It takes a certain bravery to seek ambiguity. Look at cynical politicians: selling easy assurances to the anxious. I chase the unfinished and unstable because they keep me from smug certainty.
JC: You also mention courage in terms of reading narrative themes that touch on personal tragedy, obviously for many readers this may seem counterproductive, so why is it important that readers tackle books that they would otherwise find distressing, unappealing or offensive?
DY: Sometimes it’s foolhardy to read what will hurt us. I put down A.S. Byatt’s Still Life after my wife was gravely ill. The story was too close to home, and I would’ve been a worse husband and father after reading it: broken, exhausted, selfish. Still, I’ll return to it. Why? Because Byatt’s fiction offers me an honest and moving experience of humanity. I’m with Iris Murdoch here: always feeding my hunger for consolation is ethically dodgy.
JC: Pride is often viewed as a vice rather than a virtue, indeed as one of the seven sins, so what makes pride rather than humility an asset for a reader?
DY: Pride is pleasure in ourselves. And it can be a thrill to exercise our own powers: of intellect, for example. Some works invite pride by challenging us to develop our ideas. But, as I point out in The Art of Reading, we don’t get these talents from nowhere—we learn from others, or from their example. So we have to recognise our own shortcomings: thinking is never achieved alone. Put simply: pride asks for humility.
JC: The chapter on temperance speaks of the need to control our appetites as readers, particularly in terms of a lack of proportion in what we read, but many avid readers will share your Star Trek story with their own similar literary compulsions and will enjoy reading certain genres/authors voraciously. If readers are happy reading in this way, should they be concerned about temperance?
DY: This is a question for everyone’s conscience: is there an ugliness to my mania? When I find myself chugging novels like a frat boy with beers, I’m wary. Not because of the novels themselves, but because of how I’m using them: like a drug. There is so much more to literature than intoxication, and part of my job is being sober. Mostly.
JC: I enjoyed your chapter on justice, do you think readers and critics in general manage this virtue well?
DY: One of the pleasures of my literary life is reading great critics reading: doing justice to texts, contexts and authors. Think of Frank Kermode on forgetting, Martha Nussbaum on Greek tragedy. I need them, and my fellow bibliophiles, because I so often fall short. We all do. That’s why we must read socially.
JC: If someone reads your book and realises that they’re not the most ‘virtuous’ of readers but enjoy reading nonetheless, should they look to brush up on their skills or simply carry on enjoying reading?
DY: Life is short, often painful, and generally baffling. I’m not going to screw folks out of a few humble joys. My point is that they might get more out of more books, by changing their bent a little.
JC: It seems to me perhaps that different genres require the different virtues in various measures, is it therefore important to read a mix of lots of different genres?
DY: Absolutely. This is a straightforward Aristotelian point: we develop virtues by exerting ourselves in varied circumstances. It’s easy to be patient with a Jason Bourne novel, or brave with horror—what about trying to slog through Hegel’s logic, or confronting the everyday anxiety and ambiguity of Joanne Walsh’s Vertigo? Batman and Borges might ask for very different curiosities.
JC: What is the biggest challenge to being a good reader today?
DY: Not blaming technology for our own mistakes. Not being pandered to. Not mistaking cruelty for profundity.
JC: What is the one thing all readers can do straight away to make themselves better readers?
DY: Slow the fuck down.
‘What you are doing right now is, cosmically speaking, against the odds.’
As young children, we are taught to read, but soon go on to forget just how miraculous a process it is, this turning of scratches and dots into understanding, unease and inspiration. Perhaps we need to stop and remember, stop and learn again how to read better.
Damon Young shows us how to do exactly this, walking alongside some of the greatest readers who light a path for us ― Borges, Plato, Woolf. Young reads passionately, selectively, surprisingly ― from superhero noir to speculative realism, from Heidegger to Heinlein ― and shows his reader how cultivating their inner critic can expand their own lives as well as the lives of those on the pages of the books they love.
The Art of Reading by Damon Young, published on 10 August, 2017 by Scribe UK, in hardback
An edited version of this interview appears in the summer 2017 edition of NB magazine
Main image credit: Wayne Taylor
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