Updated: Sep 27
Our first project when moving into the new house was building a floor to ceiling bookcase. The shelves became the centerpiece of our home: beautiful, functional, and endlessly rearrangeable. As a graduate student writing a dissertation on English Romanticism, the stacks were necessary, but they also signified: they offered tangible proof of the often intangible research I was doing. Practical as they were, they were also decorative. These shelves were evidence, I hoped, of my literary commitments and tastes. Each book held knowledge, but together they made up an aspirational library, representing the type of person I believed I was—or was becoming.
Things look different now. Five years later, dissertation done and staring down another cross-country move, this tower of books, once magnificent, has turned ominous, not to mention dusty. I cannot see these books individually, only the overabundance of paper and information they constitute together. The bookcase has lost its beauty, now laden with objects that must be boxed up and carried, or abandoned. To abandon would be to end a relationship, not only with the objects, but with some past, collecting self. You may have a better sense of your collection’s provenance; for me it is disorienting trying to determine where all these things came from. Whose decision was this? Who is to blame? How did I get here? This is not my beautiful bookcase.
Looking around, I find I am the only one to blame. For the past 15 years I have either paid or been paid to, essentially, read books. Facing the end of that arrangement, and the prospect of moving my library, I’m starting to consider what place reading—and books—will have in my life going forward. Books have been tools of the trade, or sometimes fine, collectible objects. Either way, they have felt indispensable. Now, sadly, they feel an awkward fit, like the clothes you no longer wear. Maybe such a change of heart had come upon William Wordsworth when he titled his ballad, “The Tables Turned”:
Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you'll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?
The sun above the mountain's head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.
Books! 'tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There's more of wisdom in it.
And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.
She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless—
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.
One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—
We murder to dissect.
Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.
Wordsworth’s short poem—not his greatest, but worth re-reading, especially if one is procrastinating packing—creates a simple and critical distinction between lived experience and received wisdom, street smarts versus book smarts. Wordsworth is squarely on the side of lived experience; for him, nature can teach more than any book.
But the poem is strange from the get go. Clear your looks? “Look”, Oxford English Dictionary: “an act of contemplating or examining an immaterial or abstract thing.” Like any good poet, Wordsworth is skeptical about appearances, naming them vain, temporary, and easily forged. The opening stanza suggests that whether we’re doing, giving, or putting on a look, we’re dealing with something pretty slippery. What’s unexpected though, is that “looks” also describes reading, or at least a certain relationship to reading. Rhyming “books” with “looks” Wordsworth warns that both are to be avoided, and for similar reasons. Like looks, misguides the reader, substituting mere appearance
for the “real” knowledge that only nature can supply.
WHY DO WE READ?
Is Wordsworth really telling us not to read? Literacy is kind of like ice cream, or Keanu Reeves, we just all agree that it is unambiguously good. Reading a book, tradition tells us, is productive, while looking at a screen is time wasted. Indices likes the UN’s Human Development Report incorporate literacy and the metric is often used to determine the countries offering the best “livability.” But is literacy the upper left, Lawful Good that we take it for granted to be? Might something be gained from severing ourselves from books? I can’t believe Wordsworth is decrying literacy wholesale, but his poem does scratch at its patina.
With a heap of books on my hands, and a sudden absence of pressure to read them, I’m forced to ask, why do I read? How do I read? Who do I read for? It’s easy to ignore these questions when you are surrounded by other academics, but now, as I prepare for a change of scenery, I need to find some answers.
What can the numbers tell us? Polling suggests that 72% of Americans read at least one book last year. And on average, Americans yearly read 12.6 books apiece. (Though if the general population is anything like the academic population, these numbers are probably a little inflated. No one is keen to admit they haven’t been doing their reading.) Looking at average page length for the most popular genres, even 10 books might take a relatively fast reader 80-100 hours a year to finish. It’s only a few hours per week, but with many Americans having less than five to spare, do books provide the best return on investment? Having put down their books, perhaps the remaining 18% are onto something.
“Books! 'tis a dull and endless strife:/ Come, hear the woodland linnet…There’s more of wisdom in it,” Wordsworth writes. Time is finite, but books are “endless”; nature is balanced, but books are filled with conflict. A reader looking for comprehensive knowledge is sure to be disappointed. I've shared the (probably) apocryphal fact that John Milton was the last person to read every book that had been written in their time. “Every book” is doing some heavy lifting here. Even before the advent of the printing press someone like Milton would be limited by accessibility, language, and literacy. The poet is credited with proficiency in 11 languages, but none would help him attend to eight centuries of Chinese block prints and butterfly bindings, and even less with millenniums of Andean quipu texts, for example. Further, Milton was blind for the last 20 years of his life. During this time he dictated works and was read to by others, primarily his daughters, Deborah and Mary. To discuss Milton's reading is necessarily to discuss the conditions and forms of that reading.
The claim for Milton is false but it demonstrates an important line of thought. First, just like Milton, we have no chance of reading everything. Google Books contains more than 40 million titles; countless more remain unscanned and countless more than that are so rare or oddly shaped we're unlikely to get our digital hands on them. There is a truly impossible amount of writing in the world. While I haven’t read with the conscious intention of finishing every book, I am familiar with a misguided style of reading bent toward completion. If we read guided by the quest for comprehensive knowledge, or finding some final word, we commit the same error as apocryphal Milton, inevitably omitting the knowledge and experience that exists beyond our ken.
Wordsworth’s critique is ultimately about reading with your head down. His imagined, chastised reader sits thoughtlessly, expanding their stale knowledge without a care for what goes on beyond its pages. Perhaps quitting my books cold turkey is an overcorrection, but Wordsworth’s reader is a bit too familiar. The recognition has called me to examine my own habits and to imagine how fewer books might mean more, and different, reading.
HOW SHOULD WE READ?
Wordsworth might approve of my book-quitting, but when I began thinking about tossing my books it occurred to me the subject might be an uncomfortable one to share through Holding History. Our program relies on the long-held human desire to preserve and care for books, media, and art objects in the face of all obstacles. We share special collections, love archiving, and just generally talk a lot about books. But Holding History has also taught me to treasure book objects for their fragility. We can learn just as much from the Folger archive as we can from books that mold and collections that are determined to disappear. To take a leap, I’m impelled to say that it is the books that ultimately quit us, whether we want them to or not.
"...quitting your books and “going forth into the light of things” need not be two opposite actions. Rather, they are two interdependent modes of reading."
What this means for Wordsworth is that quitting your books and “going forth into the light of things” need not be two opposite actions. Rather, they are two interdependent modes of reading. Paying attention to the books you keep, and why you keep them, is simply another form of reading. To have a heart that “watches and receives” is to be attentive, to interpret, and to simply be conscious. I’m not sure this conclusion would satisfy the poet, but if we look again, he’s hinting that nature too is there to be read. The play on “barren leaves,” the “lore” of nature, and even the humble linnet, whose name comes from the French lin for flax, the bird's favorite food and an essential ingredient in the physical pages of every book Wordsworth would have ever read. The book cannot be quit anymore than nature may be. We can only try to read both better.