Dec 11 2017

Two Brief Thoughts on Reading Books

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Two Brief Thoughts on Reading Books

A ghost––either of Isaac D’Israeli (1766–1848), or Andrew Lang (1844–1912), or Jorge Borges (1899–1986)––asks how differently I read a book (or author) when:

(1) I’ve bought the book,

(2) I’ve been lent the book from a friend or library,

(3) I’ve been given the book (and cannot re-gift it), or

(4) I’ve stolen the book?[1]

For scenarios (1) and (4), the answer involves me as an individual recognizing my own need to read. But in scenarios (2) and (3), it is someone else who recognizes the need for me to read something I have yet to get around to or perhaps deserve to reread. For I read differently when I want to read compared to the times when someone else wants me to read, either silently to myself or aloud to anyone around.


When I was a child there were two kinds of trees: those you could climb, and those you couldn’t. Funny, I don’t remember thinking of buildings this way, even though the same principle would apply. But architecture is frozen music,[2] while books are trees. My childish eyes looked only for attainable branches to grab, sturdy knots to claw, and convenient toeholds to brace.

And these days I think I still think of books like that: books and trees that can be read or climbed versus those that can’t, or, at least on initial inspection, look too challenging to attempt. For example Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007) is a towering redwood whose canopy I slowly approach. ’Tis a big book, one I began reading in June of this year, and, after taking about 60 pages worth of notes, am only about a third of the way through. I scoot up its trunk with some fear and much trembling, not knowing what I’ll find when I reach the top, or how I’ll safely get back down.



[1] Andrew Lang, The Library, (New York, NY: Macmillan & Co, 1881). Reprinted under Dodo Press. 2004:

The Book-Ghoul is he who combines the larceny of the biblioklept with the abominable wickedness of breaking up and mutilating the volumes from which he steals … He prepares books for the American market. (p. 28)

See also D’Israeli’s essay “A Bibliognoste” in Curiosities of LiteratureVol. III, (Sixth edition, London: John Murray, 1817.)

[2] Goethe, Aus Meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit, (1811–1830) in Poetry and Truth from My Own Life, (trans. R. O. Moon, Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1949) II, 43.