How can it be that the act of reading is like making art?  What would that mean?  What good would it do to turn one’s life over to reading in some specifically artistic way?  And how would such a decision lead to a career in writing, or at least turn one towards the writing life?  Here is an attempt at a partial answer.  Reading imaginative literature—novels, poetry, or drama, is only workable as the undertaking of a lifetime.  Dabbling here and there won’t do because serious reading is a discipline that, as we’ve argued, involves both technique (the craft of reading) and the creation of an aesthetic object.  Needless to say, talking about the “creation of an aesthetic object” is begging the question.  After all, if we knew what an “aesthetic object” was, then we’d know what a work of art was, and defining a work of art is notoriously difficult and, in many cases, as equally circular as what I’ve just argued.  To come out with it—one’s own life is the work of art, why not?  To undertake a life of reading is to undertake a serious, life-long, disciplined attempt to find authenticity, grace, inner peace, and the freedom that only long-term solitude and accomplishment can provide.  A mountain climber undertakes adventures in the Himalayas for reasons that may be quite obscure to him at the time.  He scrimps and saves to learn the basics of mountaineering, its techniques and equipment, and he delves deeply into the history of this sport, year after year accumulating more and more knowledge of how to climb and survive, learning little by little, and after much effort, what he’s doing it for in the first place.  After all, he may have climbed his first mountain knowing only that the peace and solitude of the mountain was its own reward.  Years later he may be able to articulate some other kind of pleasure or reward, though it’s most likely that a life of mountain climbing has created the person, rather than the other way around.  Later on, you become known as a mountain-climber, someone whose life and personality, even character, is wedded to the mountains.  Such is the life of reading, without the danger and the cold, ice-bound nights in a tent.  So, we discipline ourselves to reading in order to discover ourselves as human beings and to overcome our natural inclination to remain ignorant an un-enlightened.  A life devoted to yoga, karate, music or chess—those pursuits requiring of us an endurance of solitude, are similar to a life of reading.  Reading changes us by fulfilling our destinies.

The critic Harold Bloom wrote a lengthy book about reading called “How to Read and Why”, much of it pedantic.  But he is surely right about the purpose of reading literature.  He says, “Reading well is one of the great pleasures that solitude can afford you, because it is, at least in my experience, the most healing of pleasures.  It returns you to otherness…We read not only because we cannot know enough people, but because friendship is so vulnerable, so likely to diminish or disappear, overcome by space, time, imperfect sympathies, and all the sorrows of familial and passional life.  Reading well is best pursued as an implicit discipline; finally there is no method but yourself, when your self has been fully molded.”

Sven Birkerts, in his book “The Gutenberg Elegies” articulates on this same theme, but from a different perspective.  He argues, “What reading does, ultimately, is keep alive the dangerous and exhilarating idea that a life is not a sequence of moments, but a destiny.  The time of reading, the time defined by the author’s language resonating in the self, is not the world’s time, but the soul’s.  The transition from the world we live in to the world of the book is complex and gradual…I am going to take it as an axiom that the act of reading plays a vital role in the forming of sensibility in the life of the committed reader.”

This idea of comparing a life of reading to a life of mountain climbing has limited value.  For one thing, reading is truly solitary, unlike mountain climbing which, for safety, is often done in teams, or at least in two’s.  In Wendy Lesser’s fine book, “Why I Read”, she observes that readers are “groping in the dark”, which is a good thing.  “It is always an adventure of some kind,” she goes on.  “Even the second or third or tenth time you read it, a book can surprise you, and to discover a new writer you love is like discovering a whole new country.”

I’m sure mountain climbers find each mountain a new adventure, a whole new country.  Every piano player who masters a new piece of music, working hard in solitude, must discover something about himself he didn’t know, as does the climber standing on a peak.  This probably sounds impossibly romantic, but the passion of the serious readers I’ve known in my life testifies to its truth.