"I don't have time to read." It's a claim that is made often, and with a certain arrogance by people who are Too Busy. How odd that books are such hot commodities these days, but reading, apparently, is not. It's as if reading were an indulgence, a sort of decadent idleness. After all, look what happened to Madame Bovary. Her mother told her to spend less time lolling about with novels. Maybe if she had, she'd have ended up with a nice, productive little home business instead of eating that arsenic.
Then there are those people who do read but feel empowered by the disclaimer, "Well, I never read fiction." As though fiction has nothing to tell us about the world. I wonder how people who don't read fiction ever learn to imagine the world as seen from another point of view. It must make the world a remarkably simple place.
In Robert Fulford's The Triumph of Narrative: Storytelling in the Age of Mass Culture (Anansi, 158 pp., $16.95), we find a cogent analysis of the human hunger for narrative. Stories are how we explain ourselves to ourselves, says Fulford. He alludes to J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan: "Peter describes himself as a lost boy who has not been told stories; that's why he can't grow up and inhabit stories of his own as others do. He cannot become an adult because he lacks the narrative equipment." Why read? To imagine being in other places and other times, surely, but also to imagine being other selves.
In the early '90s, Italian fiction writer Italo Calvino posed the question Why read the classics? with a collection of essays that closely examined what he took to be seminal literary texts. But these days it is impossible to discuss the classics without a discussion of "the canon" (a dirty word) rearing its ugly head. We shouldn't be forced to read dead white European males but should be free to read whatever takes our fancy. Fair enough. But the work of the dead white males has been studied by many people over many centuries; our consciousness is steeped in their narratives, whether we ourselves have read the books or not. For better or worse they are part of our common language, a language made up of images and symbols and plots and archetypes.
As Archbishop Hare (one rather obscure but oft-quoted dead white male) once suggested, a possible answer to this conundrum is -- for every new book published, one should read an old one. There are so many books being published now that many of them will have a shelf- life not much longer than a quarterly magazine. There is always a new season around the corner and with it comes more novels, more memoirs, more and yet more thin volumes of short stories. How to cope with it all? Where to begin?
There is a spanking-new edition of Italo Calvino's Why Read the Classics? (Knopf, 278 pp., $34), and it provides a crash course in all the books you've meant to read but never have. Or read it just to find out what Calvino, no intellectual slouch, considers a classic.
Calvino offers a couple of definitions: "The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: "I'm rereading ... ," never "I'm reading ... ." Another definition: "A classic is a book which with each re-reading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading." Those who do have time to read, and to read to their children, soon discover that one of the joys in reading to a child is this sense of discovery, or re-discovery. It gives you the opportunity to once again while away the hours with Toad of Toad Hall, Christopher Robin and Alice in Wonderland.
And preschoolers love to be read to -- so much so that it almost doesn't matter what you read to them. Start them young enough and they will listen to Principles of Geography with as much alacrity as The Adventures of Curious George. There is something maddeningly attractive about the little blank slates they carry about in their heads. Something that makes you want to fill them up with Ali Baba and the 40 thieves, and Titania and Oberon, and Zeus and the rest. Narratives to grow on. After all, when they grow up, they probably won't have time to read.
(This article originally published in 2000)