The Benefits of Accidental Reading

“I am a believer in fortuitous accidents.” —John Ashbery


There was a time when I would only read one book or magazine at a time. Straight through, cover to cover — including the covers, the notes, the advertisements — and I would do so even if I wasn’t enjoying whatever it was because I presumed that all writing had the potential to reveal something, even if only a random fact I wasn’t pursuing or a model of thought that I would be well-advised to avoid adopting.

At some point, perhaps because this approach resulted in a slower pace of overall reading or because it delayed by days or weeks the enjoyment of the exciting piece I had just discovered, I started reading many things all at once and letting my interest direct which of them I would continue to read. If I tired of a book three chapters in, I would pick up something else to see if it I found it more enticing, and only circle back when that first book seemed intriguing again. Eventually I might even decide that a book was not worth finishing, which my more youthful self would have considered heretical, milquetoasty anti-intellectualism, but which I rationalized by deciding that what I was more naturally drawn to read might be a greater use of my always-diminishing biological span.

One accidental outcome of reading many things at once is the surprising number of confluences and parallels you uncover. A book written four centuries ago and one written this year might share a turn of phrase, a plot twist, or a psychological insight, and having both moving through your thoughts within hours or days of each other makes these similarities — or even contrasting differences — discernible in a way they likely would not have been otherwise.


I was reminded of this benefit just this week when I picked up two books at the library and started reading them on the same day. Here is the first paragraph of Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life:

There are few things humans are more dedicated to than unhappiness. Had we been placed on earth by a malign creator for the exclusive purpose of suffering, we would have good reason to congratulate ourselves on our enthusiastic response to the task. Reasons to be inconsolable abound: the fraility of our bodies, the fickleness of love, the insincerity of social life, the compromises of friendship, the deadening effects of habit. In the face of such persistent ills, we might naturally expect that no event would be awaited with greater anticipation than the moment of our own extinction.

I read a few chapters and then turned to the other book the library had surrendered, Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, which I am rereading because a third book I just finished made me want to go back to it.


Camus begins:

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer. And if it is true, as Nietzsche claims, that a philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example, you can appreciate the importance of that reply, for it will precede the definitive act. These are facts the heart can feel; yet they call for careful study before they become clear to the intellect.

Here is de Botton writing in the late 1990s (in a book structured around one of the greatest authors of that century) and Camus in the early 1950s. De Botton is playful; Camus, just a bit more intense. But the question is the same: Is happiness possible? Is life worth living? Certainly, these are timeless questions and there is no surprise that a topic that has been treated by many would be present in two different works you just happened to be reading more or less simultaneously. However, this lack of singularity does not lessen the impact on the reader, and both the connectedness of the passages and the relief they throw each other into yield a more interesting vantage point from which to consider either, and both.

I once thought of writing a piece that included instructions to the reader on a preparatory experience to have before reading the next section. For example: “Have a very late dinner at The Feast of Chilmark before reading Chapter 4.” Or: “Stand at the corner of State Street and East Liberty looking west on a September evening before reading Chapter 7.” Or, even more fun: “Peacefully break up with someone after a yearlong relationship for a reason neither of you can distinctly remember before proceeding to Chapter 12.” The idea of the reader having had an experience directly tied to the writing offered to enable a greater level of connectivity between the reader and writer; a more refined collaboration.

Of course, the dull edge of practicality cuts through such a concept with little resistance. Since eating the same foods, meeting the same people, and reading all the same books in the same order at the same pace won’t make us the same person with the same perspective, it is fruitless (if still enticing) to inconvenience a reader with such demanding homework. Far better to find that something you wrote appeals regardless of the specific experiences of the reader, regardless of what they have recently, or ever, read. And, as a reader, far better to find that something you are reading connects you to the work of another, either in its echo or its denial, in its expansion of detail or its shift of perspective, in the way it, completely accidentally, makes you consider something you have felt before with either greater certainty or, instead, with a wistful glance behind you, makes you realize that where you’ve been before isn’t where you thought it was, and is, apparently, nothing like where you are going.


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