…by clearing up the old confusion between the man who loves learning and the man who loves reading, and point out that there is no connection whatsoever between the two. A learned man is a sedentary, concentrated solitary enthusiast, who searches through books to discover some particular grain of truth upon which he has set his heart. If the passion for reading conquers him, his gains dwindle and vanish between his fingers. A reader, on the other hand, must check the desire for learning at the onset; if knowledge sticks to him well and good, but to go in pursuit of it, to read on a system, to become a specialist or an authority, is very apt to kill what it suits us to consider the more humane passion for pure and disinterested reading.So Virginia Woolf begins an essay published in the TLS in 1916, called "Hours in a Library." I stumbled upon it during my hours in the library, which is pretty much how I spend my time these days. My reading is serendipitous. I graze the stacks like a bovine in a meadow. I sip and savor. Or curl up in a comfy chair with some more substantial tuft of meadow grass. I have no learned goal in sight; I'm too old to aspire to career or authority. If something sticks, well and good, but I have no desire for accumulation. I want the pleasure of the moment. An essay of Virginia Woolf's, perhaps.
She goes on to say that the "great season for reading" is between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. Not for me, I'm afraid. I was too busy falling in love and starting a family. And solving endless problem sets in physics. If you had asked me then what was the last book I read, I might say Landau and Lifshitz's Mechanics or Slater's Quantum Theory of Matter, man-of-learning stuff, not man-of-reading.
Nevertheless, a few "reading" books did fall into my hands, and Woolf is right about this: eighteen to twenty-four is the season when books can set their mark on one's soul.
Two books stand out. Thoreau's Walden and Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain. Both books were subversive, at odds with the outward circumstances of my life, espousing virtues of solitude and contemplation as I dove into public engagement and learning.
But the seeds were set. The worm was in the bud, and I would feel it squirming somewhere deep inside all of my adult life. There was never a time that I wouldn't rather -- with Thoreau -- sit on a pumpkin than a velvet cushion. And there was never a time that I wasn't ready to celebrate -- with Merton -- the "gratuity and meaninglessness of rain."