November 07, 2015
It is no simple matter, though, to decide whether these complaints are really justified. It should not be taken for granted that reading is necessarily a good thing in itself, the sign of a developed mind or a healthy spirit. Like Somerset Maugham I would rather read a railway timetable than nothing at all, and this cannot be a manifestation of complete psychic health. (On occasion I have even resorted to telephone directories, in the days when they still existed, and found them to be not without interest.) He, Somerset Maugham, found all human company tiresome after an hour or two and longed for the comfort of the printed page; this can hardly be taken as a model for what everyone should be like.
Schopenhauer thought that too strong a desire to read indicated a desire to avoid thought, and certainly the wisest person is not he who has read most. The desire to avoid thought is by no means rare; patients would quite often ask me whether I could stop them thinking”not any particular thoughts, but thoughts in general because they were apt to disturb. They wanted the benefits of consciousness without its pains. The means of distraction are now both easier and more diversified than in the heyday of reading, and perhaps the need for them is greater, insofar as people have more time on their hands than ever before and more leisure to think. It is not surprising, then, that whatever they are doing, wherever they are and whoever they are with, they are really trying to do something else, to be somewhere else, with somebody else. Escape is the desire of most of mankind most of the time.
For all that, I cannot entirely escape the snobbery of the inveterate reader, that his mode of distraction is superior to all others, that it is at least a potentially wise and constructive use of his time, and that he will improve himself as a result of his cherished activity. Empirical evidence is lacking, but nothing will persuade me otherwise.