Saturday, May 26, 2012

What We Bring to Reading

A reader sent to me the following quotation from Arthur Schopenhauer:  "Lesen heisst mit einem fremden Kopfe, statt des eigenen, denken."   She asked if I could translate it.  My attempt was the following, which I was told is acceptable:  "To read is to think with another mind instead of one's own."  At first, this might seem to be a real denigration of reading.  However, if I must read geometry, I much prefer to do so by placing the head of Euclid upon my shoulders, und so weiter.  The German sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf in a critical study of his people notes that Germans praise those who read a few good books thoroughly rather than reading many books superficially.  He sees in this an excuse for failing to be well-read.
Schopenhauer was certainly not attacking the state of being well-read.  His own masterwork is a product of great erudition.  He was warning us to bring our mind to our reading, not to allow the writer to affix his head in the place of ours.   A few days ago, I was re-reading Emerson's essay "Success" and came upon the following thoughts regarding reading:  " 'T is the good reader that makes the good book; a good head cannot read amiss, in every book he finds passages which seem confidences or asides hidden from all else and unmistakably meant for his ear."  In today's cant, good reading is an interactive process.
Schopenhauer quoted the epigrammatist Lichtenberg to the effect that a book is like a mirror; if an ape looks in, we cannot expect an angel to look out.  That was Schopenhauer's warning to the reader to take his book seriously, to recognize that reading his work would take a real effort.


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