The Naive Optimism of Reading Challenging Books

Micah Mattix responding to an author who has resolved to read challenging books in 2021:

I know a lot of people who think that reading certain books will change them. This is so obvious to them that it is just a matter of doing the reading. If you read certain books or certain kinds of books, you will change, the thinking goes. You just have to read the books. Humbug. 

Don’t get me wrong. Reading can change a person—so can moving, or going on walks every evening, or eating flat bread with green salsa, or visiting St. Petersburg, or watching your grandmother die. These things can change you for the worse or for the better. You can become a worse person while reading only good books. Do you believe that? I do. Lots of things change us in unpredictable ways and lots of things that we think will change us radically don’t change us much at all. Sometimes taking up a new habit is the result of a change that has already taken place. Sometimes taking up a new habit is a way of refusing to change.

Mattix analyzes an example from literature to reinforce his point—a poem in which the narrator encounters an acquaintance, now a major in the Russian army, at a train station. The Russian major is an evil man: he is forcing a German dispatcher to stop trains of German civilians so that Russian soldiers can abuse them. Still, the narrator and the major end up in a scintillating intellectual discussion about literature. In the heat of their exchange the evil Russian major softens, becomes transformed. Maybe he is morphing into a more humane person as he remembers his former days as a bookish intellectual; maybe he will stop this evil business with the trains.

But then the conversation ends, and the major resumes his routine. The change in him  proved to be quite fleeting. Concludes Micah Mattix: “Read whatever you want. But read good books because they are good books—not because of some secondary (or laughably therapeutic) benefit you think they might provide. Read books by women because you want to read books by women, read books on aerospace because you want to read books on aerospace, read books of poetry criticism because you want to read books of poetry criticism (yes, you really do).”

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