Recently Bob Vorhoff sent me an excellent Washington Post column by George Will titled “What we lost when we stopped reading.” The column referenced a journal article by Adam Garfinkle on “Deep Literacy.” I highly recommend both essays and am grateful to Bob for sending them to me.
In his column Will mentions the frequent use of the phrase “binge watching,” a phenomenon that started in earnest with the advent of networks like Netflix and Amazon Prime. The phenomenon has been getting quite a workout with so many of us sequestered inside our homes. Will wonders if there is such a thing these days as “binge reading.”
I want to assure Mr. Will. Yes. There is such a thing.
Usually “binge watching” means not only watching a lot of television. It means getting so wrapped up in a particular television series that you watch the entire season in a single go.
One night last week, Debbie and I indulged in this with the British mystery series “Shetland.” We got so wrapped up in the first episode of season four, then the second episode, then the third, that we couldn’t stop until the mystery was unraveled. We were up till 2 a.m. But this is really unusual for us. Ordinarily we watch one episode of Jeopardy and a mystery at night and then read until we go to sleep.
Will’s observations have led me to reflect more on my own practice of binge reading, and I hope you may find some fun books among those I mention. Binge reading is actually very common among young readers. They will find an author they love and read everything by that author they can track down. But this is a practice I highly recommend for anyone.
Fortunately, Lily King showed up with a new novel just in time for our social isolation. Her novel, “Euphoria” (2014) is simply one of the most exquisitely crafted novels I’ve ever read. And it so happened that she has just published a new novel, “Writers & Lovers.” I discovered it when reading the book section of The New York Times in which King was also interviewed. I bought her new novel and read it right away. And, because she mentioned in the Times interview a novelist (Shirley Hazzard, whom I had never read) who had influenced her most, I ordered her too. As soon as I finished King’s new novel, I read Shirley Hazzard’s “The Evening of the Holiday” (1966) and her book about her and her husband’s friendship with Graham Greene, “Greene on Capri: A Memoir” (2000).
In a recent podcast, Jack Kornfield mentioned an anecdote from P. N. Furbank’s biography of E. M. Forster. It was something to the effect that Forster listened to you so attentively and with such deep respect for the person to whom he was listening, it made you want to be as truthful as you possibly could in return. Forster’s novels and short stories had been a victim of my binge reading a couple of decades ago. I had read (I thought!) everything he had written, just before I went on to binge my way through Thomas Hardy. But for some reason, I had never read Furbank’s biography, which I happened to own. And when I went to digging it out of our library, I also discovered a collection of essays I had not read by Forster, “Abinger Harvest,” to complete this binge. The biography read like a novel, and the essays included some of the best writing I’ve ever encountered.
Recently I have envied the joy of those folks who had never before read any of Hilary Mantel’s novels about Thomas Cromwell. I’ve been waiting for years for the third and final volume in this series to be published, during which time I tried to slake my Mantel thirst with her other earlier novels and a more recent volume of her short stories. Nothing else came close to “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies.” Now, at long last, her “The Mirror & the Light” has come along to complete the story. I can hardly wait to read it.
While waiting for Amazon shipments to arrive, I’ve filled in with some other great reads. Kevin Wilson’s delightful novel, “Nothing to See Here” (2019), Karen Russell’s “Swamplandia” (2011) and her collection of short stories “Orange World” (2019); Bill Bryson’s “The Body: A Guide for Occupants” (2019). (I read everything Bryson writes.) And, right now, along with Bryson, I’m also reading Alex Halberstadt’s haunting book, “Young Heroes of the Soviet Union: A Memoir and a Reckoning” (2020), and poet Mary Oliver’s breathtaking collection of essays, “Upstream” (2016).
Stacked along with these three books on my bedside table are two volumes of poetry: Lisel Mueller, Alive Together (1996), for which she won the Pulitzer Prize, and Jack Gilbert, “Collected Poems” (2012). Poems, of course, require greater attention than literary novels. But they often render even greater treasures.
There are so many binge-worthy writers. I keep a copy of Eudora Welty’s collected short stories and those of Ernest Hemingway on my bookshelves in both New Orleans and Saint Simons Island because I never want to get caught without them. I could read Julian Barnes all day long (come to think of it, I have). And to read right through Wallace Stegner would enrich the lives, deepen the experience, and delight the soul of anyone.
So, why binge read? What good does it do?
Let’s start with delighting the soul; that’s the purpose of good writing. That’s its first legitimate goal. The utter wonder of entering another world that stretches our imaginations and our experiences is a joy beyond words only possible through words. To immerse oneself in Wallace Stegner’s “Crossing to Safety” and then to dive right into his “All the Little Live Things” is to bathe the soul in a sense of longing that is more fulfilling than any possible possession and a fulfillment that never, never tires. It habituates the mind to enter into the rich perspective of another person, a person who possesses rare wisdom as well as a distinctive experience of the world.
But beyond the joy, the delight, the wonder, the widening of perspectives and multiplying of human experiences, there is that point that George Will and Adam Garfinkle make in their essays. “Deep literacy” increases our capacity for critical reflection. It extends the ability of a person to attend to the intricacies and logical unfolding of arguments, develops an attention span able to comprehend deeper more complex realities, and increases one’s tendency not to settle for simplistic answers. “We are or become, cognitively speaking, what we do with language,” writes Garfinkle.
Deep reading, Will writes, echoing Garfinkle, equips readers with a shield of skepticism, a valuable device in a culture plagued by demagogues and populists on the left and the right. This kind of reading doesn’t come “naturally” in a society addicted to sound bites, to ten second commercials, rapid fire television images, and bumper sticker slogans. But, as the ancient Greeks knew long ago, the building of character happens one habit at a time, for good or for bad. And, although deep literacy will never be popular, a society bereft of a substantial minority of deep readers will find itself in considerable danger.
Well, all this is true. I think. But it is not the reason I binge read. “Reading,” according to Francis Bacon, “maketh a full man.” Or to update our Elizabethan sage: “Deep reading makes humans whole.”
We’ve never had a better excuse to cultivate the habit of deep reading than we have right now.