While virtually anyone who wants to do so can train his or her brain to the habits of long-form reading, in any given culture, few people will want to. And that’s to be expected. Serious “deep attention” reading has always been and will always be a minority pursuit, a fact that has been obscured in the past half-century, especially in the United States, by the dramatic increase in the percentage of the population attending college, and by the idea (only about 150 years old) that modern literature in vernacular languages should be taught at the university level.
…The extreme reader, to coin a phrase, is a rare bird indeed. (“I have done what people do, my life makes a reasonable showing,” Lynne Sharon Schwartz writes. “Can I go back to my books now?”) Such people are born, not made, I think; or mostly born and only a little made. They take care of themselves; they always do go back to their books.
…Rose’s book is largely a celebration of autodidacticism, of people whose reading—and especially the reading of classic texts, from Homer to Dante to Shakespeare to the great Romantic poets—wasn’t imposed on them by anyone, and who often had to overcome significant social obstacles in order to read. “The autodidacts’ mission statement,” Rose writes, was “to be more than passive consumers of literature, to be active thinkers and writers. Those who proclaimed that ‘knowledge is power’ meant that the only true education is self-education, and they often regarded the expansion of formal educational opportunities with suspicion.”
It’s easy to lament the ignorance of the masses, and worse, their indifference to being so, but I do remind myself that reading, writing, and words in general are abstractions, and a deep love of them is a rarefied passion; erotic, really. Reading for me was an escape from a world I’d rather not interact with, and accumulating knowledge, even of a practically useless kind, was a way to excel at something, despite having no interest or aptitude for what most people thought life was all about. Books weren’t forced on me in a way that would ruin the enjoyment for me, nor handed to me on a platter so as to make me take the privilege of leisure for reading for granted, and the concomitant need for them has helped sustain my lifelong burning passion for them.