Sunday Quote: on literature

“Though we can condemn … the persecution of writers, acts of censorship, the burning of books, we are powerless when it comes to [the worst crime against literature]: that of not reading the books. For that … a person pays with his whole life; … a nation … pays with its history.”

Poet Joseph Brodsky in his 1987 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, cited by Maura Kelly, who was writing about how in a fast-paced ADD world it is important to take time out and read slowly:

A Slow-Books Manifesto – Maura Kelly – Entertainment – The Atlantic.

In our leisure moments, whenever we have down time, we should turn to literature—to works that took some time to write and will take some time to read, but will also stay with us longer than anything else. They’ll help us unwind better than any electronic device—and they’ll pleasurably sharpen our minds and identities, too.

She goes on to list the proven benefits of reading literature: it improves your memory, your learning capability; it helps you put yourself in another’s place and understand their perspective.

A very close second to this week’s quote was from a piece by Liel Leibovitz on the same topic:

We Must Relearn to Read – Tablet Magazine.

Of course, the genre of self-ascription as such should not be altogether dismissed. If one, say, happens to be the Right Honourable Sir Winston Churchill, and had fought the Second Boer War, and had sponsored the campaign in Gallipoli, and had rescued the world from the jaws of tyranny, and had written the definitive history of the English-speaking peoples, and had won the Nobel Prize in literature for his efforts, one should most definitely sit down to write a memoir. Heck, make that two. But if one’s designs on posterity involve writing an inane and intermittently amusing account of traveling somewhere banal and meeting some, like, really crazy people, one ought to take a cue from Sir Winston and first live a life truly worth writing about.

Leibovitz also made some great observations about the Jewish tradition of reading and how our culture has always been centred around text:

The People of the Book, of course, realized this about books a very long time ago. At the core of our being is a shared text, which we spend eternity debating. Our discussions, our disputes, our creative feats—all stem from it. Take away our common canon and we’re left with that most debased and meaningless of commodities: opinions. In some strange way, that old chestnut about two Jews having three opinions gets it all wrong. What Jews excel in aren’t opinions—the carefree and baseless expression of personal sentiment—but responsa, attempts to make sense of life that are rooted in a distinct tradition and a strong commitment to exploring and understanding its intricacies.

I’ll admit that I struggle to do this and spend far too much of my time reading blogs, newspapers and magazine articles rather than books. Books are important, some things can only be said at length.

So the lesson for the week? Pick up a novel for 30 minutes every day. I’ll try to do it too.


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