Damon is the most interesting philosopher working in Australia right now because he makes the effort to talk to people who aren't philosophers. I've enjoyed all his books, but this latest, The Art of Reading, is perhaps his best yet. It's difficult to write about an unseen phenomenon, and yet he does so engagingly, compulsively, from the first page; indeed from the epigraph, a Jean-Paul Sartre quote:
"One does not write for slaves."
No, Jean-Paul, one does not.
He's very kindly given me an extract from the intro, for your enjoyment and embiggening. Read it, then go buy the book. I got the paperback because I consider it to be shelfworthy. I will drop an Amazon link in at the bottom, but for those who are not slaves to the Beast of Bezos, I've temporarily listsed The Art of Reading at jbsbookshelf.com with links out to the major stores. Grab it there. For a paperback copy, I would totally go with Booktopia.
TO MY RIGHT is a small stained pine bookcase. It contains, among other things, my childhood.
Stacked in muted burgundy and khaki buckram are classics like Aesop’s Fables, full of blunt aphorisms for 4-year-olds: ‘To be well prepared for war is the best guarantee of peace’. Not far away is Richard Burton’s translation of The Book of the Thousand and One Nights, with its formally phrased smut (‘he laid his hand under her left armpit, whereupon his vitals and her vitals yearned for coition’). Still read after seven decades, my mother’s octavo The Magic Faraway Tree—mystery, adventure and casual corporal punishment. I also have her Winnie the Pooh, printed the year she was born. Seventy years on, her grandson now has Eeyore days. (‘Good morning, Pooh Bear ... If it is a good morning ... Which I doubt.’) But most important for me, standing face out in black plastic leather and fake gold leaf, is The Celebrated Cases of Sherlock Holmes.
Holmes was my first literary world. Proudly bigger than anything read by my primary school peers, Conan Doyle’s 800-page tome was a prop in my performance of superiority. This archaic lump of text helped me feel special. I was more clever, said the serious serif font, than the other 11-year-olds; more intellectually brave, said the ornamental binding, than my teachers.
Sherlock Holmes was a kind of existential dress-up—an adult I tried on for size. I made our common traits a uniform: social abruptness, emotional flight, pathological curiosity. In Conan Doyle’s prose, this make-believe was more stylish than my clumsy boyhood persona. Take the first lines from The Sign of the Four: ‘Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case.’ My detective was an addict: but with panache. (I kept a dictionary for words like ‘morocco’. And ‘panache’.)
Yet there was more to The Celebrated Cases of Sherlock Holmes than my pretence. What I finally took from Conan Doyle’s mysteries was not savoir faire but freedom: the charisma of an independent mind. This Victorian London, with its shadows and blood, was mine. I winced as Holmes ‘thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston’, but the needle and its rush were my own to invent. Watson’s gentlemanly heroism, and Inspector Lestrade’s mediocrity: all belonging to the little boy lying quietly on the flokati rug. So my Holmesian education was only partly about general knowledge—the symbolic pips of the Ku Klux Klan, the atmosphere of moors, the principles of deduction. It was also, more crucially, schooling in the exertion of my own psyche. I willed this strange world into being, with help from Conan Doyle. The author was less like an entertaining uncle, and more like a conspirator. We met in private to secure my liberation from school’s banality and home’s atmosphere of violence.
Holmes was not my first book. I was already in that ‘promised land’, as Vladimir Nabokov put it in Speak, Memory, ‘where ... words are meant to mean what they mean’. I learned to read with the ‘Asterix’ adventures, when my parents refused to voice the speech boxes. If I wanted the puns and fisticuffs, I had to parse the text myself. Beside my bed there was also a lion who swallowed vegetable soup instead of rabbits; dinosaurs against industrial pollution; and Ferdinand the pacifist bull. These were training and, later, distraction. Like Germaine Greer, who ‘read for greed’, I kept myself busy with words on paper—an urge closer to rapacity than curiosity. These desires combined in ‘Garfield’, as I devoured cartoons and lasagne with equal urgency.
But with The Celebrated Cases of Sherlock Holmes, I had a new sense of greater mastery, and pleasure in this discovery. Part of me saw Holmes as a legendary historical hero, and I enjoyed what novelist Michael Chabon called the ‘happy confusion’ of fact and fiction. Another part of me, burgeoning and a little buzzed, was doing away with deference. I realised that these dark marks on paper were mine to ignore or investigate, enrich or evade. It was with the junky detective that I first became aware of myself as something powerful: a reader.
Three decades later, my bookshelves are punctuated by discoveries of this imaginative independence. For these authors, the written word encouraged a new liberty: to think, perceive or feel with greater awareness.
Novelist William Gibson, whom I read as a teenager, is currently shelved in the garage between Ian Fleming’s pubescent thrillers and Harry Harrison’s galactic satire. Also roused by Sherlock Holmes as a boy, Gibson transformed his drab suburban neighbourhood into Victorian England, one brick wall at a time. ‘I could imagine that there was an infinite number of similar buildings in every direction,’ Gibson told The Paris Review, ‘and I was in Sherlock Holmes’s London.’ Conan Doyle’s stories were more than escapism or amusement for Gibson. They beckoned him to invent.
Two shelves under Gibson, Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk recalled reading as relief from tears of boredom, and as a flight from confronting fact. In Other Colours, the novelist congratulated himself, as I did, on ‘possessing greater depth than those who do not read’. This was partly juvenile boastfulness. But it was also an acknowledgement of the work involved: turning black text into an illuminated theatre. Pamuk wrote of the ‘creator’s bliss’ he enjoyed as a child reader, putting his mind to work with words.
Two rooms behind and one century before Pamuk is American novelist Edith Wharton. Invited into her father’s library as a child, she found a private sanctuary: a ‘kingdom’, as she put it. ‘There was in me a secret retreat,’ she wrote in A Backward Glance, ‘where I wished no one to intrude.’ This was more than withdrawal. With the poetry of Alfred Tennyson, Alexander Pope and Algernon Charles Swinburne, the criticism of John Ruskin, the novels of Walter Scott, Wharton played with exciting new themes and rhythms. She wrote about reading as a cultivation and celebration of her growing personality—what she called ‘the complex music of my strange inner world’. The novelist believed that she became more fully herself in those yellowing pages.
Eighteenth century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, stacked two feet to the left of Wharton, read romantic novels late into the night with his widower father. The stories made him aware, for the first time, of his own mind. ‘It is from my earliest reading,’ he wrote in his Confessions, ‘that I date the unbroken consciousness of my own existence.’ The point is not only that Rousseau’s emotions were encouraged by the novels, but also that he recognised them as his. And while the philosopher (characteristically) blamed fiction for his own histrionic bent, the melodrama arose chiefly out of little Jean-Jacques.
The shelf under Rousseau holds the modern philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. He discovered his literary authority in a sixth-floor apartment, looking down on Paris, his grandfather’s books in his hands. Words gave the boy a certain mastery over himself: he was a demiurge, bestowing the world with life, in language. ‘The Universe lay spread at my feet and each thing was humbly begging for a name,’ he wrote, ‘and giving it one was like both creating it and taking it.’ Sartre also collected American westerns and detective comics, and their heroic caricature—lone brave man against the world—remained in his philosophy, decades later.
Simone de Beauvoir, close to Sartre in my library as in life, remembered the security of books. Not only because of their docile bourgeois morality, but also because they obeyed her. ‘They said what they had to say, and didn’t pretend to say anything else,’ de Beauvoir wrote in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, ‘when I was not there, they were silent.’ She recognised that they asked for conviction and artistry—from Simone, rather than simply from the authors. De Beauvoir called this ‘the sorcery that transmutes printed symbols into stories’: without a reader, the magic stops.
There is no one-size-fits-all discovery of literary power. Reading is thick with the quirks of era, family and psychology. Some, like Rousseau, find romantic urges. Others, like Sartre, find enlightenment domination. There can be pretence, narcissism and cowardice. (But enough about me.) In many cases, there is a longing for what philosopher Herbert Marcuse labelled ‘holiday reality’: an asylum from ordinariness. Charles Dickens wrote about this as his boyhood ‘hope of something beyond that place and time’. But as Dickens’ later popularity suggests, these moments of youthful bibliophilia also coincide with the discovery of clout. The child is becoming aware, not only of worlds populated with detectives, Gauls or bulls, but also of an ‘I’: the reader, whose consent and creativity brings these worlds into being. Reading is an introduction to a more ambitious mind.
Jean-Paul Sartre, in What is Literature?, wrote: ‘There is no art except for and by others’. The philosopher’s argument was not that authors cannot enjoy writing for themselves; that every word is dashed off, hand aching, for tyrannical editors and audiences—what Henry James described in one letter as ‘the devouring maw into which I ... pour belated copy’. Instead, Sartre’s point was that the text is only ever half finished by the writer. Without a reader, the text is a stream of sensations: dark and light shapes.
This does not mean ordinary life is a play of dumb necessity. Sensation always has some significance for humans— we are creatures of meaning, and the universe is never spied as a naked fact. But the world writ large does not refer to things fluently; the suggestions are often vague. ‘The dim little meaning which dwells within it,’ wrote Sartre of everyday sensation, ‘a light joy, a timid sadness, remains imminent or trembles about it like a heat mist.’ Ordinary life has a hazy atmosphere to it, whereas language illuminates brightly and sharply.
The letters achieve this by pointing beyond themselves— we read through the text, not off it. ‘There is prose when the word passes across our gaze,’ said Sartre, quoting the poet Paul Valéry, ‘as the glass across the sun.’ Words are portals of sorts: they frame reality, and become invisible as we peer.
Not all texts are as transparent as Sartre’s ideal prose. Poetry can be more opaque. Take Seamus Heaney’s ‘The Bookcase’. It refers literally to the poet’s library, but it also makes a spectacle of the English tongue. ‘Ashwood or oak-wood? Planed to silkiness / Mitred, much eyed-along, each vellum-pale / Board in the bookcase held and never sagged.’ Alliteration, rhythm, metaphor: this is about a thing and its resonances, but it is also about language. Poetry puts on a show of words, just as painting displays colour, and music sound. Poetic phrases, wrote German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, ‘haul back and bring to a standstill the fleeting word that points beyond itself ’.
Language can be translucent like amber or clear like Valéry’s glass, but staring through it always asks for effort. Inscriptions or projections become words, which have meanings alongside their tone and cadence. This is what I first recognised in Sherlock Holmes: reading is always a transformation of sensation into sense. ‘You have to make them all out of squiggles,’ poet D Nurkse wrote, ‘like the feelers of dead ants.’
For the reader, this means rendering a world: the intricate ensemble beyond the page. When Conan Doyle writes that the sun is visible ‘through the dim veil which hangs over the great city’, I recreate London. Not only the sky’s spray of yellow and grey, but also the coal and commerce that make the metropolis ‘great’. The newspaper reporting the death of Sherlock’s client also evokes a community of middle-class readers from Cornwall to Northumberland, all participating in the imagined community of print. Waterloo Station, to which the victim was hurrying, suggests steam trains across England: taking passengers and parcels of The Times for men like Watson to read. All this I project behind the foreground prose. ‘The objects represented by art,’ as Sartre put it, ‘appear against the background of the universe.’ I piece together a cosmos from the author’s fragments.
What this all reinforces is that writing cannot make anything happen. As an infant, earlier editions of The Celebrated Cases of Sherlock Holmes were wholly opaque to me: blocks of chewable stuff. And as an 11-year-old I was not forced to imagine Holmes in his ‘velvet-lined arm-chair’, pushing blow into his blood. I had to commit myself to the text; to consent to a kind of active passivity, in which I accepted Conan Doyle’s words, then took responsibility for giving them some totality.
Reading requires some quantum of autonomy: no-one compels me to envisage their words. They are, at best, an invitation. Sartre phrases this as an ‘appeal’, and the idea makes sense of how little necessity is at play. Reading is always a meeting of two liberties: the artist’s and the audience’s.
Available at Amazon. (If you really must)