Will Self: How Should We Read?

Jan 19, 2023 8:01 PM

How should we read? The S-word makes it sound, like it or not, like a moral injunction—deep, passionate and enthusiastic readers we may well be, there nonetheless remains something about the way we transform marks on a page or screen into images and ideas in the mind that leaves us feeling like failures. Modish neuroscience may provide at least some of the answers: the ability to read and write—unlike speech—isn’t hard-wired into the human mind-brain, but rather, such is our neural plasticity, that we’re constantly changing in our very essence so as to refine these skills. Perhaps this is why reading always feels a little like striving—unless we’ve mastered the facile trick of reading entirely for pleasure, a subject to which I’ll return.

So, there’s always this quality of endeavor about reading—and at the same time, in cognitive terms it’s hard work. When someone reading complex passages of prose—ones, say, that attempt to convey human lives in all their manifold sensuous and intellectual complexity—is placed in a MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scanner, we can see on the machine’s visual display that almost all of their brain is lit up like the proverbial Christmas tree. Not only that, but the parts of the brain employed when actually talking, walking or making love are illuminated by the very act of reading about talking, walking or making love.

Long before such data was available, the French literary critic, René Girard, argued that portrayal of characters’ behavior and motivations in novels was just as valid a study for psychological theorists—now science seems to have borne him out. Fancifully, I imagine a reader in an MRI machine reading about a man reading… in an MRI machine—and I wonder how this mise en abyme might appear to the literary technicians of the future, and whether it could turn the is into an ought, thereby telling us—at long last—how we should read. Because I have to confess: I no longer have that sense of security in my own methods that I once did—one which, in retrospect, I based on my empirical study of a single subject: myself.

Out of boredom we call forth invention, and there’s nothing more inventive than reading, save possibly for writing.

Raised by bookish but undisciplined parents, I always felt I had just about the best introduction to reading imaginable: my American mother’s modish novels and zeitgeisty works on psychology mingling on the shelves with my English father’s English canonical tastes and his motley collection of philosophical texts (many of which came from my autodidactic grandfather’s own extensive library). And there were plenty of other books as well—acquired by my brothers or me at second-hand stores and flea markets. Nobody was remotely precious about these volumes: they were there to be read not revered. And since my parents had also decreed—in order to inculcate us with their own bookish tendencies—that we could have no television, reading was pretty much all we had to do: there was no street life in leafy middle class English suburbia in the 1960s, unless you liked watching lawns grow.


I didn’t. I read—and I read, and I read some more. I read what was to hand—and since there was no prescription for how to do it, I read promiscuously, mixing fiction and non-, children’s and adult’s books. My ascent from the twee confines of The Secret Garden into the terrifying ones of Yossarian’s bomber, as it circled over Bologna was altogether vertiginous. And if I didn’t altogether understand the full satirical intent of Heller’s masterpiece (I first attempted Catch-22 when I was 12 years old), the opening line of the novel nonetheless hooked me in with its appeal to my own warped romanticism: “It was love at first sight…”

My mother loved to read with an almost sensual intensity—trips to the local lending library, where we squeaked on waxed floors between shelves at once sunny and sepulchral, had the air of religious rituals—my library card was equivalent to a party one, a catechism, or both. When my father left, my brother and I, aged eleven and nine, would find ourselves attending “reading suppers” with our depressed and only intermittently communicative mother. By this stage the words on the page encoded not simply the thoughts and imaginings of their author, but the yet deeper intelligence that this was a way out—a time-tunnel into the past, or a space one, projected across the interstellar immensities and into as many worlds as could be imagined.

I favored the plain bright-yellow jacketed Gollancz science fiction editions when borrowing books from the library—and I’d usually leave with my full allowance: seven volumes. I first read the novels of JG Ballard this way. I was far too young for his sexualized car accidents and other exhibitions of atrocity—but his minatory vision compelled me, stayed with me, and many years later the writer himself became a friend and a sort of mentor to me: quite possibly this was one of the fruits of having learnt how to read. I was, of course, taught to read—if, by this, is meant the basic decoding of the alphabet. My mother, good American that she was, used flashcards and the thick velvety nap of the material covering the sofa, which she’d write on with her finger then erase with the back of her hand. Such magic inspired precociousness, and I could indeed read fluently by the time I went to nursery school.

But merely being able to decipher texts isn’t really reading in its fullest sense—anymore than reading so-called “page-turners” teaches you much besides how to turn a page. True, there is a pleasure to be gained from undemanding works that hustle you along their lines, luring you on with little resolutions to equally picayune conundrums. Bu let’s face it: reading a Dan Brown novel is to literature as playing Kandy Krush is to advanced strategic thinking—and while “reading for pleasure” may encompass a huge variety of texts, given one person’s whodunit is another’s why are we here?; as an answer to the question, how should we read? “For pleasure” has no more substance than hedonism ever does in what we must, perforce, call the real world.

Which brings me back to that promiscuity animadverted to above: a promiscuity born of fidelity rather than its dereliction; a fidelity not to a given work or its author, but to the great palimpsest of texts, worked up, worked over, interleaved and woven with one another, that constitutes literature in its entirety. To read promiscuously is to comprehend the caresses of one work in the arms of another—and the promiscuous reader is a pedagogue par excellence. How should we read? We would read as gourmands eat, gobbling down huge gobbets of text. No one told me not to pivot abruptly from Valley of the Dolls to The Brothers Karamazov—so I did; anymore than they warned me not to intersperse passages of Fanny Hill with those written by Frantz Fanon—so I did that, too. By reading indiscriminately, I learned to discriminate—and learned also to comprehend: for it’s only with the acquisition of large data sets that we also develop schemas supple enough to interpret new material.

I read—and I read, and I read some more. I read what was to hand—and since there was no prescription for how to do it, I read promiscuously.

How should we read? We should read not expecting to comprehend all that we read: if we come across a signifier we don’t understand, or something signified we cannot clearly discern, we should read on, secure in the knowledge that either the context will supply the answer, or the writer will use the same words again in a different one. As it is to the individual morpheme, so it is to the magnum opus: understanding, engagement and enjoyment all rest on an ability not only to suspend disbelief, but also suspend comprehension—to allow oneself, as one reads on, the sweetest luxury, that of doubt.

One of the many problems digital reading brings with it is its drive to make all texts as transparent as the screens upon which they’re displayed: a touch of the finger and a definition appears—a swipe then we’re given annotations, glosses and exegeses in terrifying abundance. Yet when I think back, it was always in my more negative capability that I found the deepest engagement: I learned more by resisting the effort to get up and consult a dictionary or an encyclopedia than I did by doing so—for I carried on learning how to read by doing just that.

To reproduce the circumstances under which I was able to achieve such levels of literary absorption a contemporary reader would have to go on some sort of retreat, to a destination without any internet connection, and sufficiently remote to replicate a child’s distant view of worldly concerns. Then there’s ennui—out of boredom we call forth invention, and there’s nothing more inventive than reading, save possibly for writing. If there’s one thing our culture, with its relentless cultural commoditizing, cannot abide, it’s that even the smallest portion of tedium should be left unperturbed or not monetized.

I believe it was my indiscriminate browsing among my parents’ books that enabled me, once I reached university, to absorb most of the punitive reading lists that my professors set—for each essay, often ten volumes or their equivalent; and we had to read for two essays ever week of the semester. It was an elite education—no doubt: but its elitism for the most part resided simply in this three-year workout of Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas: those portions of the brain most involved in the decipherment of text.

I took these pumped-up and hyperactive neurons with me into a life of indolence—I used to joke that I spent all of my twenties lying in bed reading novels, and as Freud so nicely observed, there are no such things as jokes. I’ve no wish for this to conclude as some sort of diatribe against screen-based reading—to do so would seem a little, um, rich, given you, dear reader, in all likelihood are doing just this, right now. But I wonder if this state of affairs represents a conundrum quite as capable of being infinitely regressed as that reader in an MRI machine, reading about a reader reading in an MRI machine. This is only to say that just as the digital readers’ eyes slide across the screen too quickly, and on to another screen—quite possibly one displaying images rather than words—so their analogue counterparts’ saccades are arrested by boards and bindings.

This is the chaste reclusion required as a counterpoint to all that promiscuity: keeping faith with a single text, toughing it out until the very end, regardless of either longueurs or those purple passages whereby it seems to be being unfaithful to its reader. And of course, in an era when the entirety of the world’s literature is available more or less instantaneously, such fixity can be difficult—if not impossible—to achieve.

By the time our culture reached “peak paper”—in the late 1990s—my bedside table boasted a teetering stack of books I was reading simultaneously. Twenty years on, there’s only an e-reader, loaded up with perhaps as many as seventy texts I’m concurrently carrying on with. Don’t get me wrong: I still find the time—and possess the guile—to have clandestine rendezvous with particularly alluring works; and I still cleave just as strongly to the idea that it’s in the oscillation between textual monogamy and polygamy (or polyandry) that we find our true love of—and engagement with—reading.

But the new technologies of reading have had a significant impact on what we read, quite as much as how we do it—and it’s this topic that I wish to turn to in my next essay for Lit Hub, confident that by exploring the contentious issue of the canonical, we will gain still more insight into the practical.


This is the first in a series by Will Self on how—and why—we read.