On Reading a Lot or a Little

I read a lot on the one hand and very little on the other. That is, I am always immersed in a text, be it a Torah portion, a poem I am translating, a poem I am not translating, a literary work I am teaching, a song I am listening to again and again, or something I am rereading. But I am not one of those people who devour books. I am woefully behind with books I have been wanting to read, books given to me, books I have been planning to reread. Some of them I get to more quickly than others, but some have been sitting on my shelf for years. It would be great to read more of them, but I don’t read fast. That said, I am glad that they are there; it is important to me to have books to reach for. As a result of moving to Hungary, I have pared my book collection way down, but even so, there’s enough here for a lifetime.

An interesting thing I noticed when deciding which books to keep: the poetry, fiction, and drama have endured far longer than most of the nonfiction. Unfortunately, a lot of nonfiction books (for instance, books about education) fizzle out; after one time through, there’s really no reason to return to them again, except for reference. There are exceptions—books with exceptionally compelling writing or interesting topics—but very few people treat nonfiction writing as an art. Not so with good fiction, poetry, drama; they keep opening into more, and a person can come to them in seemingly infinite ways. I say “seemingly infinite” because there’s no telling whether they’re infinite or not.

There’s plenty of ephemeral fiction too, and poetry, and drama, and everything else. But in terms of what’s on my bookshelf, imaginative literature lasts longer than the rest. And there are levels of lasting.

In a tribute to János Pilinszky, just published by Agenda Poetry, Nicole Waldner writes:

In an interview about his wartime experiences, Pilinszky described the journey on the train into Germany in 1944, to the fringes of civilisation’s collapse: “I took a large pile of books with me to war. And I kept throwing them out of the railway carriage one after the other. Every book became anachronistic. But the Gospels underwent a miraculous metamorphosis.” The metamorphosis of which Pilinszky spoke was a “stripping away of lesser realities” and this stripping away, along with his determination to never look away, became his life’s mission.

I just started reading the essay but have to run out the door for the class trip. I will have more to say about it when I return and read it closely. But this passage caught my eye and mind right away. I wouldn’t be so arrogant or foolish as to compare myself to Pilinszky, but that “stripping away of lesser realities” is important to me too. Not an excuse for my reading so little, but maybe a way of thinking about reading.

Photo by Diána Komróczki.

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  1. “This place of quiet fixity” | Take Away the Takeaway

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  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

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    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

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