What should we read and why?
Virginia Woolf’s principal suggestion in her excellent essay “How Should One Read a Book” is to try to understand what point or points the author wants to make and enjoy what you are reading. She adds a clever idea that God is jealous of humanity because humans can get enjoyment from reading, while God cannot do so. Woolf is correct that one benefit we get from reading is enjoyment.
However, I believe that there is a more significant benefit. The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) wrote that humans are better than plants and animals because humans can think. He stressed that a person who does not think is no better than a plant or animal. The Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1138-1204) agreed but took one step further. He added that when the Bible states that God placed the image of God in humans, this image is the ability to think. The main benefit of reading is acquiring information about the world, how it functions, how humans behave, and how we can use this information to improve ourselves and society.
My favorite books are the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, and Maimonides’ “Guide for the Perplexed,” also translated as “Guide of the Perplexed.” I have written dozens of books about them. But I also read many other kinds of books, even fiction and children’s books. I am convinced that I can learn much from most literature.
For example, I write reviews for Amazon. I have now written close to 10,000 reviews. I enjoy doing so. Amazon pays me by giving me some items for free. On the Amazon website, I wrote that I read about 200 books a year. This was true in the past. The number today is over 1,000. Most of the books, over 800, are children’s books. I can read and write a review of a children’s book in less than five minutes. I mention this to emphasize that a reader can even learn about the world and humans from many children’s books. Many describe how children behave and think, properly and improperly. If one considers their behavior, they will realize that it is good and even needed for children, but is inappropriate and harmful as one ages. Yet, the behavior and ideas frequently continues in some form in some people into adulthood, as humorously dramatized in J.M. Barrie’s classic “Peter Pan,” and should be recognized and modified.
Another example. Today is Sunday. Yesterday, I read the 2022 novel “The 6:20 Man” by David Baldacci, the Woolf essay, and a hundred pages of Jack Carr’s thriller “In the Blood,” which I plan to finish. I enjoyed all three, as Virginia Woolf suggests, and I learned something from each of them, a deeper understanding of ideas I already had. I did what Aristotle and Maimonides advised. I thought.
The Baldacci novel gave me more insight into the massive tragedy in society today. Many people are led to believe that misbehaviors tarnish the soul, as depicted in this novel, where the protagonist gives up his dream job because he feels guilty, takes a drab position he hates as self-punishment, lives in near poverty, and agonizes daily over his past behavior, his “sin.” The foolish idea is also sensationalized in Oscar Wilde’s wonderful classic “The Picture of Dorian Grey.” This misunderstanding of “sin” and its consequences has destroyed many lives. It is wrong. It is not a Jewish concept, although many Jews think it is. Maimonides taught that when you do something wrong, you should correct it, not agonize over it and let it destroy you. You should realize your mistake, decide not to repeat it, and develop habits that assure you will not repeat it. Errors are not remedied by the pronouncements of a cleric or the chanting of a religious prayer. Nor are they annulled by another person accepting them upon themselves or a cleric making a declaration of annulment.
There is no concept of “sin” in the Hebrew Bible as a distorting stain upon the soul that requires a kind of supernatural atonement process, as the idea is understood today. On the contrary, wrong behavior is seen in a rational, natural way. The Hebrew Bible speaks of three categories of wrongs that are not synonyms. There is chet, the misstep, literally meaning “missing the mark,” as if one were shooting an arrow and hitting the outer rims of the target and missing its center. The Bible mentions it 34 times. The second pesha, occurring 93 times, is a conscious rebellious act such as taking revenge, stealing, and murder. The third avon, cited in 233 instances, is an error, an unintentional act that nevertheless has harmful consequences. Understood in this natural way, it should be clear that the misdeed is something that shouldn’t provoke passive feelings of guilt and prayerful recitations; individuals should recognize what they did wrong, think about why they did the wrong, take actions that remedy the consequences, and assure that there will be no repetition.
Virginia Woolf’s book reminded me of Aristotle’s and Maimonides’ teaching and prompted me to think deeper about their ideas, as I wrote above. Jack Carr’s thriller started me to think again, even deeper, about the misdirection our great country is taking.
In short, while I agree with Virginia Woolf that we should read to enjoy what others reveal to us, I add that we should think about the ideas in the books and improve ourselves and society.