Specifically, I remember two pieces in The Hungry Mind Review, which asked a number of writers to select a single book from this century that they would take with them into the next. Reflecting on the way he had gradually lost interest in fiction, Gerald Early asked if “this is how one, by stages, loses the ability to read or the interest in reading altogether.” This in turn, he thought, might be part of a process whereby one loses “slowly but inexorably the ability to feel deeply about anything.” For his part, Sven Birkerts chose Rilke’s Duino Elegiesbecause “it is there we find the most potent possible distillation of subjective inwardness, our most endangered attribute.” Is this lack of “subjective inwardness” the malady of which my — and Early’s — declining ability to read is a symptom?
Perhaps not. In And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, John Berger has speculated that the inability to remember might itself be a memory (of being a memoryless baby in the womb). In the same way, my declining ability to read is itself the product of having read a fair bit. If reading heightens your responses, shapes your idea of the world, gives you a sense of the purpose of life, then it is not surprising if, over time, reading should come to play a proportionately smaller role in the context of the myriad possibilities it has opened up. The more thoroughly we have absorbed its lessons, the less frequently we need to refer to the user’s manual. After a certain point subjective inwardness becomes self- rather than textually generated. Of course, there is more to learn, more to read, but whereas, as a teenager, each new book represented an almost overwhelming addition to what I knew and felt, each new book now adds a smaller increment to the sum of knowledge.
As an 18-year-old in Cheltenham, England, waiting to study English at Oxford, my experience was radically circumscribed. I’d never been abroad. Except for teachers, I’d hardly met anyone who was not from pretty much the same working-class, nonreading milieu as my family. On the other hand, I was bursting with the limitless imaginings of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Dickens, Lawrence. A life devoted entirely to the study of literature seemed the highest possible destiny. No longer. Reading, which gave me a life, is now just part of that life, at the moment rather a small part.
Books played a crucial part in determining how I became what I am. That slightly ungainly phrase is derived from the subtitle of Ecce Homo, in which Nietzsche delivers the pronouncement with which anyone who has learned anything from books — from his at any rate — will agree: “Early in the morning, at break of day, in all the freshness and dawn of one’s strength, to read a book— I call that vicious!”