The Physicality of Reading
Updated: Aug 30
An essay on books, reading, and joy.
The great essayist Michel de Montaigne would dress up before reading, for which he dedicated a specific and decorous study. Reading for him was not just serious, but a ritual activity—akin to a spiritual ceremony. Users of psychedelic drugs talk about the importance of set and setting to avoid a bad trip—one could as easily talk about the importance of set (one’s frame of mind) and setting (the physical context) for reading.
Talking to a friend a long time ago, he recounted knowing a librarian for a college who did not really read, but talked as if he had absorbed the contents of the books under his care though some kind of osmosis. While clearly absurd, this magical belief is not far off how many of us regard books: when we treat their purchase as the acquisition of knowledge rather than the act of reading them, when we treat their existence as containing knowledge rather than heeding their use to transmit and communicate ideas between people. It is a strange instantiation of the commodity fetish to see books as entombing ideas, rather than as imperfect but merited mediators between peoples’ thought (the complex author-reader relationship).
The telos (purpose) of an unread book is unfulfilled. Ideas contained by neglected prose exist only in potentia, and if never accessed they do not really have much of an existence at all. A book permanently consigned to such a state is as good as a book burned. Books are objects in a world of objects, they are produced through social processes (both in terms of writing and printing) and consumed by living people in real spaces. This is as true for ebooks (which are also wholly of the world, even if via a quite different medium to traditional print) as it is for any other kind.
Being such specific and unique things in the world, books then are never just ‘read’ in the abstract. My reading of George Eliot’s Middlemarch is never the same reading as anyone else’s, nor is my rereading a true repetition of my first reading. This is because I am a different person to someone else reading Eliot, or even substantively (although not completely, in my ontological opinion) to my past self reading Eliot. And each reading will take place, even if in the same general space, in that same space at a different time. And all too often, not at all in the same general space.
None of that is to say that one person reading Eliot’s novel has no connection to another’s reading, but there is a value in stressing the specificity of the reading act in time. And if we do stress that specificity, then the specificity of all the instances and constituents of that act too. Montaigne understood this, and sought to dignify that specificity.
He had a hedonistic approach to the act, he avoided making of it an arduous labour and instead framed reading as joyful and sumptuous and exciting. He did not treat books as abstract things, but as intensely and interestingly intimate. And the fruit of that relationship to literature is evident in his own writing, in the pleasure Montaigne took with words, in the way he talks of literature as many talk of people: ‘When I am attacked by gloomy thoughts, nothing helps me so much as running to my books. They quickly absorb me and banish the clouds from my mind.’
I recently reacquired a huge portion of my book collection, reuniting my library after half-a-decade of it being spread across two homes—my current and former. When I first went to London, to live with my wife in a tiny bedsit, space precluded less than a fraction of my books. When I moved about in the city, I gradually acquired more, and now all, of this precious hoard.
The books I chose first were selected on the basis that I had yet to read them. They were often those books I had been meaning to read for a while. And although this quite utilitarian approach succeeded in its stated aim—I would go on to read many of these volumes—it was nonetheless a mistake. And it was a mistake I only recognise now that I am once again surrounded by books I read long ago.
Since I first took up serious reading in my mid-teens (I enjoyed books as a child, I was read to from an early age, but I was not a precocious reader), I have valued books as objects in themselves. Since my late teens I have been a collector of the beautifully crafted Folio Society books, each one rendered with completely apt illustrations and overall designs. I don’t begrudge the cliche about the smell of books, I love the dry texture of paper, the weight of hardbacks in my hands and the sound of pages and spines. I also adore the margins of empty space in a well-published tome; the elegant print and the excited anticipation of selecting a new story or philosophy to leaf through, or the pathos of returning a completed work to the shelves.
Now, I am surrounded by books to which memories and long chains of association cling. Many of the books around me I have read, many of these I don’t imagine rereading, but their appearance nearby recalls that earlier act of reading in a Proustian way, and in a completely non-abstracted way. In a manner I am sure Montaigne would have been able to appreciate.
Being surrounded by such books—including Montaigne’s essays, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and Eliot’s Middlemarch—I am pushed to think again about how I read. It is a part of my life I’ve let become too routinised, too emptied of meaning. Worse, I don’t make time for books, and increasingly treat them as if their mere existence under my legalistic ownership confers some magical qualities to me. But because the experiences associated with these old books is not of that sort, I cannot—mercifully—look at them in that way.
We readers need to periodically remind ourselves of the joys of reading. We do not necessarily have to go as far as Montaigne to honour our books, but it is always worthwhile renewing something like his hedonistic approach to literature, to the experiences and communicative, listening acts literature offers up. We should all of us pick up a book with the seriousness of play, the intensity of fun and the belief that this moment of reading is a unique one, sustained by a confluence of factors that will never be exactly repeated, and thereby conveying on to it a specificity that is in itself, incommensurably wonderful.
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