In response to my posting of some rather directive thoughts on reading by Dorothy Sayers, a friend wrote: “Hey, I thought you were the ‘read at whim’ guy.” To which I respond, first, I am the “read at whim” guy. In that book I wrote, and I still believe,
For heaven’s sake, don’t turn reading into the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens, or (shifting the metaphor slightly) some fearfully disciplined appointment with an elliptical trainer of the mind in which you count words or pages the way some people fix their attention on the “calories burned” readout — some assiduous and taxing exercise that allows you to look back on your conquest of Middlemarch with grim satisfaction. How depressing. This kind of thing is not reading at all, but what C. S. Lewis once called “social and ethical hygiene.”
But what I was writing about there was recreational reading. I don’t tell students in my classes to read at whim; I don’t encourage people studying for an organic chemistry final exam or the LSAT to read at whim. And it seems to me that people don’t always keep the varying occasions of reading clearly distinguished in their minds when they talk about what others should or should not read — nor when they make their own decisions about reading.
When reading for fun, then, I’d recommend, read for fun. When reading in order to learn about something specific, for a definable purpose, then read, in a disciplined and attentive way, what helps you to achieve that purpose. This much seems clear to me. But I think what often happens to people is that they catch themselves in a vaguely intermediate condition, not really needing to read anything in particular but vaguely feeling that their reading somehow ought to be purposeful — even teleological in a way, leading towards some genuinely meaningful end.
What many of these people really want, it seems to me — and I base this on decades of talking with folks who are anxious about their reading — is not to read Henry James but to be the kind of person who, when left at loose ends, positively wants to read Henry James, wants to read Henry James so much that he or she will toss aside Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Fifty Shades of Grey without even noticing what they are in order to get to that precious copy of The Ambassadors that someone has inexplicably left at the bottom of a stack.
I think it’s okay not to be that person. I have read most of Henry James’s novels and I think he is a true master — though still more a master of the short story — but I am definitely not that person.
If you want to make a serious study of the novels of Henry James in order to develop a fuller understanding of his mastery, then do that. It’s a good thing to do. Develop a plan, develop a strategy for learning more about anything that you’d like to know more about. Self-education is a fantastic thing. But it’s not the same thing as reading for fun, for delight, at whim. And giving free rein to Whim from time to time is also a very healthy — I would say a necessary — thing to do.