How To Read

Bernhard“The punishment matches the guilt: to be deprived of all appetite for life, to be brought to the highest degree of weariness of life” — Kierkegaard

Thomas Bernhard is one of the truly great writers of the last century. In his novel, Alte Meister (Old Masters), one of his central characters is an musicologist who comes to the art museum every other day, sits in the same place, and contemplates the same painting for three hours. Here are this character’s (Reger) comments on reading. Don’t think my HTML crashed: Berhard is one of those writers who feel extra white-space, including paragraph breaks, does not contribute significantly to the import of the text … so he leaves them out).

I have not read a book at home for years, here in the Bordone Room I have read hundreds of books, but that is not to say that I read all those books in the Bordone Room through to the end, I have never in my life read a single book through to the end, my way of reading a book is that of a highly talented page turner, that is of a person who would rather turn the pages than read, who therefore turns dozens, or at times hundreds, of pages before reading a single one; but when this person does read a page he reads it more thoroughly than anyone and with the greatest reading passion imaginable. I am more of a page turner than a reader, you should know, and I love turning pages just as much as reading, I have, in my life, turned pages a million times more often than I have read them, and always derived from turning pages at least as much pleasure and real intellectual enjoyment as from reading. Surely it is better to read altogether only three pages of a four-hundred-page book a thousand times more thoroughly than the normal reader who reads everything but does not read a single page thoroughly, he said. It is better to read twelve lines of a book with the utmost intensity and thus to penetrate into them to the full, as one might say, rather than read the whole book as the normal reader does, who in the end knows the book he has read no more than an air passenger knows the landscape he overflies. He does not even perceive the contours. Thus all people nowadays read everything by flying over, they read everything and know nothing. I enter into a book and settle in it, neck and crop, you should realize, in one or two pages of a philosophical essay as if I were entering a landscape, a piece of nature, a state organism, a detail of the earth, if you like, in order to penetrate into it entirely and not just with half my strength or half-heartedly, in order to explore it and then, having explored it with all the thoroughness at my disposal, drawing conclusions as to the whole. He who reads everything has understood nothing, he said. It is not necessary to read all of Goethe or all of Kant, it is not necessary to read all of Schopenhauer; a few pages of Werther, a few pages of Elective Affinities and we know more in the end about the two books than if we had read them from beginning to end, which would anyway deprive us of the purest enjoyment. But such drastic self-restraint requires so much courage and such strength of mind as can only rarely be mustered and as we ourselves muster only rarely; the reading person, just as the carnivorous, is gluttonous in the most revolting manner and, like the carnivorous person, upsets his stomach and his entire health, his head and his whole intellectual existence. We even understand a philosophical essay better if we do not gobble it up entirely and at one go, but pick out a detail from which we then arrive at the whole, if we are lucky. Our greatest pleasure, surely, is in fragments, just as we derive the most pleasure from life if we regard it as a fragment, whereas the whole and the complete and perfect are basically abhorrent to us. Only when we are fortunate enough to turn something whole, something complete or indeed perfect into a fragment, when we get down to reading it, only then do we experience a high degree, at times indeed a supreme degree, of pleasure in it. Our age has long been intolerable as a whole he said, only when we perceive a fragment of it is it tolerable to us. The whole and the perfect are intolerable, he said.

The thought that popped into my head as I was reading this was that Reger was right. Besides, most books nowadays give up as much intellectual stimulation, human pleasure, and idle entertainment if you only read a few pages and then contemplate what you read as when you struggle through the tedium and inanity all the way to the last page.

But you have to decide for yourself. Old Masters is, after all, a comedy. But then, Dante wrote a comedy too, right?

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