There is no means by which a reader can embark upon a sure-fire program that will result in a magical reading life, a reading project guaranteed to improve the mind and character. Surely, then, reading fiction and poetry is, as Bloom argues, a “solitary praxis”, though the word “praxis” nevertheless implies a practical approach. I’m sure Bloom only means that the reading life is a custom or habit that readers persistently develop until reading becomes natural and necessary. I’ve often wondered how professional golfers can play golf day after endless day without becoming bored or weary of the practice, the tournaments, the endless hours of drills. Some people have wondered I’m sure why people read so much, thinking that it must be boring inside that world when so much is going on outside. But the writer and critic Maureen Corrigan in her book “Leave me Alone: I’m Reading”, says, “When I’m in the company of others—even my nearest and dearest—there always comes a moment when I’d rather be reading a book.” This is true for every reader I’ve known, even though reading, unlike golf, is an unpaid profession. I’m certain that non-readers feel both perturbed and threatened when their loved ones retreat into a book for hours.

It is, perhaps, to writers themselves that we should turn for insights into the magic of the reading life. In a fine small book called “Remarkable Reads,” edited by J. Peder Zane, thirty-four writers discuss books that have somehow made deep impressions on their conscious lives, books that have inspired, unnerved, angered, overwhelmed, or distressed them. As you can imagine, writers and poets have thought long and seriously about why books have such power—not the external, mechanical power to terrify governments, religions, or conservative social orders, but the power somehow to move individuals to happiness, rage, panic, fear, joy, or any number of human emotions. Some writers are aware that a book has changed their lives, mostly in positive ways. In his introduction, Zane cites the French writer Anatole France, who “said that a writer’s words are like a ‘harp string’ and ‘so invokes a note from the sounding board of the soul’.” Imaginative writers, Zane continues, “need sensitive readers just as surely as pianists need finely tuned instruments. The books…show us how books can tempt and enchant us. They tell us why they can be dangerous, sad, lonely and mad, fragile and fearless, seductive and devastating, unpleasant, daunting and, yes, sometimes, incomprehensible.”

My own reading life has extended now for sixty years. During that time I’ve read an untold number of books, novels, poems and essays. I’ve read non-fiction as well, and a few non-fiction books have exhibited the power of a poem over my memory and emotional life. I’ve published books as the editor of Watermark Press; and, inevitably, I’ve reviewed books as part of my reading life as well. Most of the books I’ve read, reviewed or published have in some ways vanished from my life. For example, many years ago I read through all of Aldous Huxley. Those books, read voraciously in cheap paperback editions on foggy nights in San Francisco and Oakland, are no longer part of my world. I can say that I’ve “read” Huxley. I can provide a brief outline of the only “plot” I remember, that of “Brave New World”. But of a book like “Chrome Yellow”, not even a shadow remains inside me. Huxley’s books, however, are “on my shelves”, alert I suppose to the notion that I might pick them up again someday. But I probably never will.

There are, however, books we never forget and which we reread as part of our “solitary praxis”, books we return to over and over again, forging new links with them, allowing them to pluck our harp strings again. These are not the Great Books, and it would be useless to compile a list of them with which to enlighten or educate other people. Sometimes, I find that fellow readers share my feelings about a book. Many people have a special relationship to Kafka, for example. But most often they have their own reading memories buried deep inside, emotional responses that vary from mine, but which I understand when they speak about it. In this way, readers who engage in the reading life are pursuing an art form. Everydayness stands in stark contrast to the reading life, not as an enemy or an illusion, but as a piece of friction slowing us down. The reading life is its own kind of inner revolution.