Upholstering the Skull

     I just encountered this gem:

     Being an introvert, I spend a lot of time in my own head. — Dio

     As a colleague of mine likes to say, I resemble that remark. But just as “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s,” you don’t have to be an introvert to appreciate the wisdom of comfortably furnishing the places you hang out. That definitely includes your head.

     (Hey, Jefferson Airplane told us to “Feed your head,” didn’t it? Did you plan to eat standing up? So this isn’t a brand new revelation.)

     Reading provides the best mental furniture. And of course, if you want the plush stuff that cradles you lovingly through those long hours of asking yourself “Why is there air?” you should prefer the really good books: the ones that will provide copious, long-lasting illuminations you can use over and over as you traverse your interview-and-cocktail-party-filled life.

     But how is one to know which books are that good? Without having read them first, that is. Well, recommendations from friends can start you on the trail, though as with anything, tastes will vary. Another way is to “go for the classics.” Surely a book deemed thus will have much to offer, though a classic, the wags will tell you, is “a book everyone wants to have read but no one wants to read.” Either path can fill your reading list, but the enjoyment thereof is not guaranteed.

     A third avenue suggests itself: Read books everyone is quoting! Quotability suggests that the source tome will have the virtue of brevity, for who can remember a two-hundred-word quote? (Pipe down, you in the peanut gallery; there are exceptions to that rule.) There’s also this: A book being frequently quoted is likely to be relevant to contemporary concerns. The sting in that scorpion’s tail is that “contemporary concerns” are as often trivial and fleeting as they are weighty and enduring. Once again, there are no guarantees.

     Older books can be illuminating. They can also be somewhat trying, as the writers of yesteryear weren’t as adept at entertaining the reader as the writers of today. I recently ran across an interesting case for study: Gulliver’s Travels. I thought I remembered reading that particular classic when I was much younger, but in fact my knowledge of it was based on snippets from it that I’d encountered in other volumes. It reads rather slowly, at some points ponderously. Yes, it’s full of insights, but a contemporary reader will need endurance to get all the way to the end. (By contrast, The Scarlet Pimpernel is eminently readable and entertaining. However, avoid Les Misérables at all costs.)

     Now, this is coming from my personal perspective. I’ve been a reader lifelong, and the effects come through in what I write: a somewhat archaic tone, an occasionally obscure vocabulary, and a fondness for superannuated turns of phrase. Some of my readers claim to be charmed by it, while others have upbraided me for it. If you write, consider whether you’d like those things to affect your jottings.

     I suppose the bottom line is exactly and only this: Read. The more widely, the better. Nothing else provides the wealth of mental furnishings that can make one’s moments of contemplation comfortable and rewarding.

     Yet the trend of our time is not to read.


     Contemporary American culture has been drifting away from the printed (or pixelated) word for some time now. People often claim to have no time to read. I sympathize. Modern life is somewhat taxing. Not many people have – or believe they have – much free time. But the burdens on one’s time are self-imposed more often than not.

     Note that even people who claim to have no time to read have copious time for other, entirely discretionary activities. Some of those activities can seem socially obligatory. Others are just ways of passing all that time one claims not to have. The overall quality of American life doesn’t strike me as having improved with the flood of alternative forms of entertainment, but each to his tastes, I suppose.

     What I wonder – and what’s kicked me off on this tirade, apart from my absolute unwillingness to write about politics or current affairs this morning – is what people who never or almost never read think about in their idle moments. What’s their mental furniture like? Is it comfy? Does snuggling into it ease the irritations of the day? Does it support refreshing perspectives from which they can view their trials and travails in a new light?

     Though I’m not so haughty as to deem the minds of non-readers empty, I can’t help wondering where they retreat from the excessively busy world when things get too frenetic. Are there video clips playing from their meninges? Snippets from comedy sketches? Popular tunes? Perhaps collages made from colorful advertisements? Unclear, from first to last.

     Time was, periodicals could fill the voids in one’s consciousness without demanding a lot of skull sweat. But periodicals are headed for the dustbin of history. These days they’re mostly ads, and we can get enough ads from the World Wide Web for anyone’s taste. Besides, there’s the disposal problem.

     How does one who doesn’t read hold a worthwhile conversation with a new acquaintance? If he reads and you don’t, he’s unlikely to lavish a lot of time on you. If neither of you reads, you’re confined to talking about the detritus of contemporary culture: “an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow” (Robert M. Pirsig). What’s there in that for anyone?


     Rounding the curve on this train of thought, it occurs to me to wonder whether Western culture is moving away from a desire to know in preference for a copious supply of distractions. That’s an awfully sharp change of direction. Time was, the ideal was to be as well versed in “the best that has been thought and said” (Matthew Arnold) as one’s intellect could encompass. Indeed, look at that phrase well versed a second time. It comes from the exhortation to become familiar with great poetry: the poetry of Homer, Virgil, Dante Alighieri, Shakespeare, Donne, Tennyson, Coleridge, Arnold, Blake, Keats, Macaulay, Kipling, Byron, Dickinson, Shelley, Poe, Yeats, Eliot, Service, Jeffers, Lindsay, Frost, MacLeish! For the great poets weren’t just masters of rhythm and rhyme. They told immortal stories filled to the brim with wisdom. Yet who today lavishes a moment on the works of any of those names? Give me the remote; there must be something amusing somewhere in these these five hundred channels.

     The distracted can be very easily gulled. It’s the basis of prestidigitation. It’s unwise in the extreme to trust persons whose actions suggest that they’re attempting to distract or confuse you. Yet they’re getting ever better at it as we become ever more distractible and gullible. A great part of our current maladies arises from how easily the powers that be and their media auxiliary distract us from things we later wish we had paid proper attention.


     I could go on, but there’s no need. Read! The treasures of the centuries lie open to him who reads. To him who disdains reading, there is only the moment, and that slips away before we can pronounce its name.

     Judith Martin, a.k.a. Miss Manners, wrote in one of her columns that the only passion that will never let you down is reading. She was absolutely correct. That obsession with baseball, or hot cars, or fly fishing, or collectible figurines, or sex will not last. If you hope to remain interesting to those around you as you age, nothing is as reliable as a love of the printed word.

     Take it from one who knows.


    • Kevin on January 23, 2023 at 11:40 AM

    I inflicted (verb chosen carefully) American History on cadets at West Point many years ago.  We always encouraged cadets to read.  As a fellow instructor pointed out – and I would love to take credit for this, but it was his comment – it didn’t really matter too much what one read; even Sports Illustrated could teach one words like “melee.”  That’s not even considering the fact that more complicated material can make one start handling ideas in one’s mind.

    That was a full Army career ago, and just before the pernicious attention-damping cell phones became ubiquitous.  I dread to think how little today’s crop of students or cadets read.  Very grateful that we homeschooled our kids, and that our grandchildren were homeschooled long enough to make them readers.

    • jwm on January 23, 2023 at 9:48 PM

    I noticed this thirty years ago when I was teaching high school. The walkman was a new thing, along with portable CD players. Most of the kids went through the day with headphones on, and the stereo running full time. Their head space was never quiet. Those kids are all middle aged now, and they’re walking around with that white thing in their ears, and their faces lodged into the cellphone. They grew up in a field of distraction, and they can’t live without it. I’ve been on jobs with guys who have to have a stereo running constantly.

    I did sixteen miles on the fat tire bike today, following the new bike path from one end to the other. The storms are over, and So Cal is cool, and clear. Lots of people were out on the path, even though it was Monday. I’m not kidding, every single pedestrian was bluetoothed, and phone zombied. The San Gabriels are covered with snow for the first time in years. Can anyone look away from the screen long enough to notice? Read? How many characters in a tweet? How much “text” fits on a cellphone screen?


Comments have been disabled.