The Reading of Wonders

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The first thing I remember, I was lying in my bed
I couldn’t’ve been no more than one or two
And I remember there’s a radio, coming from the room next door
…Well it’s late in the evening, and the music’s seeping through.

— Paul Simon, Late in the Evening
The most amazing thing I’ve ever read was the side of a pencil.

To paraphrase Paul, first thing I remember I was lying in my bed, couldn’t’ve been no more than 2 or 3. It wasn’t late in the evening, but the vaporizer in my room — I had a nasty cold — created a noirish shroud worthy of “The Third Man.” In the absence of music seeping through, I became transfixed by a thin, yellow device on my tray table, beckoning through the mist. I picked up the pencil, twirled it around and noticed bits of the alphabet I’d been learning from my mom. Then, in one enthralling moment, those discrete letters became the parts of a whole — the name and address of the pencil-maker.

I got hooked on the thrill of seeing letters turn into words and began reading anything I could get my hands on. I liberated cereal boxes from the breakfast table, scavenged empty vegetable cans from the garbage and strained to read my dad’s tiny scribblings of potential song titles on the backs of napkins and road maps.

My early reading adventures did not go hand in hand with correct pronunciation. I was surprised to learn that “blue lips” wasn’t pronounced “boo nips,” and chagrined when my precocious friend Walter pointed out that James Monroe hadn’t pulled off the Lois-iana Purk-hase. I also screwed up words I’d heard but not read. For me, the singer who hit it big with my dad’s song “Ebb Tide” when I was 4 was Victor Moan, not Vic Damone, who in any case was born Vito Ricco Farinola.

Pointing out mispronunciations to others can be dicey. Once I gently corrected a colleague — a voracious reader! — who referred to another’s behavior as Hee-nee-is. She dug in her stiletto heels and snapped, “You say it your way, I’ll say it mine.”

My fascination with the act of reading soon turned into a thirst for the pleasure and meaning only reading can provide. We all have our favorites — for me right now the combination of the deadpan hilarity of Elmore Leonard and the mysterious profundity of Louis Borges can’t be beat.

Great minds have weighed in on the benefits of reading for its own sake versus reading for a utilitarian goal — like gaining a college degree or learning the address of a pencil outfit. The founder of Western philosophy, Socrates — whose name was pronounced Soak-Rates by Michael Jackson — never so much as jotted anything down, arguing that writing corrupts the soul. Or maybe he just couldn’t find a pencil.

If Socrates was the CEO of Western philosophy, Aristotle was its COO, penning in minute detail his thoughts on every imaginable philosophical subject. For him, while reading is “useful for the purposes of life in a variety of ways,” the pursuit of reading for its own sake was also among the highest virtues.

In the East, the Buddha, like Socrates, eschewed writing. But like Aristotle, he articulated a comprehensive world view, memorialized via the phenomenal memories of generations of monks.

The age of Twitter (dictionary definition: “a short burst of inconsequential information”) challenges the continued importance of reading that takes longer than the blink of an eye. Have you noticed, by the way, that entire ages — the computer age, the Internet age, the age of Google — now come and go in a few years, as opposed to the thousands of millennia for which they used to stick around? Moore’s Law tells us that the rate of increase in power of digital electronics doubles every two years. Watch out — future “eras” might not last long enough to read and write about.

Buddhist meditation — the art of silent sitting, the opposite of texting and Twittering — may point toward a future with plenty of room for reading, both useful and for its own sake. Meditation, Buddhists maintain, leads to greater clarity and a reduction of suffering, and can therefore be said to have a utilitarian function. But the practice itself must be done without any goal. As Zen master Sunryu Suzuki says in his classic “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,” meditation with a “goal you strive to attain…is absurd.” Since the present moment is all we’ve got, what could be better than a good, leisurely read — without the expectation of any particular outcome? Borges said, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” Time to pencil in a reading retreat between Tweets.

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