On Reading in Bed

It is a given that reading is a serious thing. Reading in bed is not serious. Sure, you can read some detective story, or perhaps science fiction. But Dante? Shakespeare? Tolstoy? Dickens? Forget about it.

Well, I disagree. Reading in bed is one of the best ways to read serious literature. First of all, things are quiet (usually), and you can concentrate on the book, instead of having numerous other distractions that come from reading elsewhere. Second, it’s honest. If one of the great classic bores you and you drop off to sleep, so much the better for your health, and nobody needs to know that great classic bores you and that, just between us, you thought Harry Potter better than War and Peace. Conversely, if you find a book fascinating, you can read all night, without people likely to bother you. I, for one, did just that with 100 Years of Soltitude; we all have a similar book which “caught” us.

But the most important point for reading the classics in bed is to meet them as friends. We meet books just like we meet people: it makes a great difference if you speak to a person in a business meeting or an intimate bar. In formal situations, you do not meet the person himself or herself. You meet their public persona: a professional, a businessman, a teacher, an auto mechanic, or whatnot. You can only get to know the person himself or herself in intimate, private situations. Only then can you find out if that person and you share some deep insights and similarities, loves and hates.

It is the same with books. Meeting them for the first time in the classroom, or reading list, or “great books” curriculum (and you better enjoy it — it says it’s a “great book”, doesn’t it?) or similar public events, is quite different than meeting them for the first time in bed. When you meet the books publicly, in formal settings, you tend not to meet the book itself, but public or expert opinion about the book. You do not read the book, but a “great book”, or a “Nobel Prize Winner”. You often are, not intimidated exactly, but at least influenced, by the professor’s, or fellow students’, or colleagues’, or family’s, views about what the book should be, long before you read it yourself.

Take for example the Nobel prize for literature. It is explicitly awarded, not to the book with the highest literary merit (in the judgment of the committee, at least), but to the book which gave the “greatest benefit” to mankind “in an ideal direction” — two criteria which are so imprecise as to often make the selection a de facto political or fashionable one. For example, early committees interpreted “idealism” almost literally, in the Hegelian sense, hence prizes to the likes of Kipling (as opposed to Zola), while in the 1980s and 90s, “idealism” and the “benefit of mankind” were interpreted to mean recognition of non-European authors writing in non-European languages. All this often has (psst! Don’t tell anyone!) little to do with literary merit per se.

But back to our subject. Again, the great books are great because people enjoyed them, not because they won some prize or professors of literature praised them. Reading in bed is the best way to get to befriend the book: to get to know its characters, its plot, its style, its beauty and so on intimately and personally, reacting to the qualities in the book that attract you, not the ones literary theory says are most important. We get to love Dickens, for example, because of Sam Weller and Miss Havisham, Pip and Copperfield, Heep and Pecksniff, and the rest — not because he wrote “classics” which “everybody needs to read” or won the critics’ praise.

So, reading in bed is the best way to get to know the great books intimately, and understand not only why some books are not as great as they are supposed to be, but also why some books are indeed as great, indeed greater, than we expected. For reading in bed allows you to recognize which authors wrote books that they desired to be read, and which achieved greatness through connecting with the reader, as opposed to the modern (or perhaps not-so-modern) phenomenon of those authors who wrote books to be praised by the literary establishment, which requires technical skill of a certain sort and awareness of what political and social views are currently the bon ton, but not much concern with the reader.

When you read in bed, you are not reading the classics because you want to “read the classics”, to get through a “must read” list. You want to read the book itself. You read because you care about David Copperfield, the person, not because you care about finishing David Copperfield, the classic book. Which, I suspect, is precisely what Dickens wished.

About the Author
Dr Avital Pilpel is a lecturer of Philosophy at the University of Haifa and the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC). As a hobby, he researches the history of Chess in Israel and the Yishuv