The problem for the librarian, no less than for the career consultant, the occupational health and safety supervisor, and the beleaguered investment banker, is that the notion of a “work-life balance” is a terrible false dichotomy, the Marxist equivalent of giving all your chips away before the deck is even shuffled and then borrowing from the dealer to buy a round for the table. It is manifestly impossible to divide one’s life into neat or even approximately spherical compartments (how many New York Times crossword puzzles have been completed with a “Eureka!” exclaimed while on the family dog’s midnight promenade), and the decision to deny the obvious is generally employed by those who actually know better, which is why they are forever unsatisfied with the level of the scales. While it is plainly true that one can read a book more or less closely (substitute a beach blanket and a daiquiri for a pencil and a desk), it is equally true that something of everything we read is retained, to be recalled, by chance more often than design, on some or another future occasion, a dinner conversation, a tutorial essay, or a game of Trivial Pursuit. As every student who has written an examination knows all too well, it is impossible to predict when the most felicitous recollections – legend has it, the essential ingredients in the making of a “Congratulatory First” – will occur, but the chances are most assuredly increased in direct proportion to the number of books we read.Even, just for pleasure.
As Heywood once said about spelling ability, I would say about intellectual ability — there’s no substitute for always having your nose in a book. The more you read, even if “only” for pleasure, the more you’re exposed to different ways of thinking and expression, to references that lead to further illumination after striking your curiosity. I’m continually surprised at how many forgotten words, phrases, passages, books, and blog posts spring to my attention from somewhere deep in my subconscious at just the slightest oblique trigger. The more you read, the more stuff you have in your mental basement waiting to be hauled out and dusted off.
But the phrase “reading for pleasure” itself has a little bit of a sneer to it, an implicit conviction that stuff we really like isn’t good for us, and vice versa. The “blood, sweat and tears” school of intellectual achievement. The angry, suspicious ghost of John Calvin, hostile to anything pleasurable, warning of idle hands – or minds, as the case may be – doing the devil’s work. But as Graham says, we often don’t know what’s going to make the deepest impression on us, what’s going to become an important hub in a wheel of thoughts. I’ve read scholarly books that I honestly can’t say enhanced my understanding of a subject at all, whereas there have been
comics documentary, graphic nonfiction books that have given me those “Eureka!” moments he mentioned. And I will always name Calvin & Hobbes as one of my biggest intellectual influences.
Even then, I don’t mean to sound like I’m saying that it’s tolerable to read less weighty material as long as you manage to achieve some practical result from doing so. Sometimes, you need to just read for fun. For the entertainment of a good story and language. For the pure, exuberant fuck of it. I mix my serious reading with Forgotten Realms fantasy novels or Simpsons comics all the time.
And really, I’ve found that nothing makes reading feel like work more than a terrible writer, regardless of the topic. If you’re really interested in a subject, and you find a writer who can make it come to life with engaging prose, well, then! You’ve got it made. I remember reading one of Isaiah Berlin’s books in a veterinarian’s office once, and she asked me if I was reading it for school or something. When I said no, she gave me the most incredulous look and asked why I would bother. I guess it would have been insulting if it hadn’t been so funny, the way she almost acted affronted by it. Why would anyone think or read if they weren’t being forced to?! Oh, well, her loss.