Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 30, 2016

Sensational Snippets: The Art of Reading (2016), by Damon Young

The Art of ReadingAlthough my regular reading fare is the novel, I always have some non-fiction on the go, and currently it’s philosopher Damon Young’s new book, The Art of Reading.  Like most books about books and reading, it has an instant appeal to those of us who revel in the pleasure of the book, and I like the way Young celebrates reading as an art, one that is exercised by the reader, without whom a text is nothing.  He quotes Sartre who says that the text is only half finished by the writer.  Without a reader, the text is a stream of sensation: dark and light shapes.  It is we who read who render the world, recreate the cities, piece together a cosmos from the author’s fragments.

Beyond primary school, we tend not to celebrate the virtues of reading, and Young contrasts the enthusiasm for the popular writing industry with the lack of interest in reading as a creative talent to tenaciously enrich and enhance.  I was amused by the statistics he furnished in support of writer and translator Tim Parks who says that authorship has become a glamorous professional persona, rather than a craft: a US survey showed that 80% of Americans wanted to write a book; a quarter of Americans had not read a book in the previous year.  Who do all those wannabe authors expect will read their magnum opus, eh? Does it matter what they write, or just that they see their names in print?

But what really grabbed my attention was what Young had to say about literary criticism.  He reminds us that Aristotle wrote of the virtues of reading, and selects his own as chapter headings for the rest of the book, their purpose being a reminder of the reader’s power to realise worlds:

  • curiosity,
  • patience,
  • courage,
  • pride,
  • temperance, and
  • justice.

But in his reflections about the reading he has done in support of these virtues, he acknowledges that he has his own prejudices: authors, genres and styles.  Whether he has overcome these biases or justified them is not the point, the point is that The Art of Reading  is a public reflection on an often private art and like the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre he believes that virtues are best developed communally.

If reading is a confrontation between two liberties, then reading well asks for a third: other readers, from whom I receive rival or exotic impressions of life.

This is partly why literary criticism is so fundamental.  Critics are caricatured as snooty gatekeepers, anaesthetised pedants, or parasites – and some live up to the stereotypes.  But the best critics exemplify the art of reading.  They do not simply shed light on works.  They also reveal the prejudices – clarifying or obfuscating, charitable or mean, curious or numbed to novelty – we bring to works, and the visions of life we promote.  American essayist HL Mencken argued that the critic is a ‘catalyser’: instead of two chemical substances, the critic works between a text and his reader.  ‘It is his business to provoke the reaction,’ Mencken wrote, ‘between the work of art and the spectator.’ Sometimes, this is true: the critic helps an untutored or uncertain audience.  Works that are bafflingly foreign in era, language or sensibility become more familiar.  But critics can also prompt reactions in readers who are erudite and assured, because they are erudite and assured – they need their conceits relaxed.  The finest critical studies can make a philosophical contribution, loosening a white-knuckle grip on taken-for-grantedness.

Professionals have no monopoly on this role.  […..]  The strife of interpretations occurs in metropolitan literary festivals and suburban book clubs; at the café bench or domestic dinner table. Not everyone is a critic, but every reader can employ criticism in company – not simply to catch out authors, but to keep an eye on themselves. (pp.24-5)

Young could, in this context, have mentioned literary blogs and the conversations that take place around them, but he doesn’t.  Still, today I found myself twice considering what he says about virtues developing communally: firstly when I read a rather nasty newspaper critique of a book for which I had just finished writing my own review.   The critique told me more about the anonymous critic’s prejudices than about the book, and made me dig in my heels about why I had liked it, despite some of it being bafflingly foreign to me.  Secondly, I was taken aback when I read, fascinated, a somewhat negative but cogently argued review of a book I read long ago and loved.  That review made me look not just at my own interpretation of the novel, but also at the taken-for-grantedness with which I had read it.  I had read it through the quixotic prism of my British origins and my Australian anti-colonialism, but an American perspective made of it an entirely different book.  Both a rival and an exotic impression that I found fascinating… two perfect examples of what Young meant, I think, by the interaction between book, reader and critic.

I don’t think I’m going to read The Art of Reading straight through, all in one go, as I usually do, because the first chapter references so much of Borges and his ‘Library of Babel’ that I want to re-read that and other temptations too.  But I’ll keep you posted on other delights as I find them, I assure you:)

Author: Damon Young
Title: The Art of Reading
Publisher: Melbourne University Press, 2016
ISBN: 780522867602
Review copy courtesy of Melbourne University Press

Direct from Melbourne University Press,
Fishpond: The Art of Reading
or good bookstores everywhere.



  1. This sounds fascinating. I come at the art of reading from a slightly different direction because I listen to so many books being read while I work. Over the last 2 days I have listened off and on to and read the same book, because I was thinking of a review mostly, but also because I finished work without hearing the end of the story. And so I have read to myself passages that were already familiar, and the differences surprised me, arising in part from timing – audio ‘reading’ is much slower than ordinary reading.
    In passing, the US statistic indicates that at least some of the people who want to write a book (80%) don’t actually read them (25%).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I find the audio book experience entirely different, and yes, also to “re-reading” them for one reason or another.
      I had an odd experience with Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga when I borrowed the audiobook from the library. This is a story about an old man in a tower apartment somewhere in India, and the harassment he undergoes as developers try to get him to move. The narration was so affecting, I found that I did not want to know how it ended, because I suspected that it ended badly, very badly indeed. I have the book at home on my shelves, but I haven’t yet been able to make myself read it. I’m sure I would never have reacted like that if I’d read it rather than listened to it.


      • That’s a lovely story. I quite often stop watching when I feel embarrassed/when the protagonist is in an embarrassing situation. Drives the family mad if we’re all watching a show. I think when I’m reading I sort of look away.


        • I think it’s a sign of emotional health when we become really engaged like that…


  2. I’m already convinced I should read this just on the strength of your initial reactions. On the point about our reactions being influenced by our own prejudices or dispositions I think we see that happening a lot amongst people who argue for a particular book to be banned simply because of its subject matter and irrespective of any thought as to its literary qualities.


    • Indeed yes, there are famous examples of that, not the least being The Satanic Verses.
      But there are other kinds of prejudice: people who won’t read translated books; or books by gays; or famously, VS Naipaul about women’s writing and conversely women whose blogs proclaim that they only read women. People who read only books that have already been censored as in Christian Book lists, and even people who only read bestsellers!
      I am looking forward to reading his chapter about patience. I don’t think patience is one of my virtues so I’m expecting to be challenged by that!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s a splendid proposal, to properly appreciate reading as an art. To expand on a suggestion in your post, litblogging brings together elements of the newspaper review and the bookclub into a new and important way of reading in community.


    • I never thought of it like that, but yes, perhaps that’s why it appeals to me. I’ve tried several bookclubs, but they never worked for me. But this way, I retain choice of what i want to read, I’m exposed to other bloggers’ suggestions for other books I might like, and I get to talk to other people who’ve read the book (which as we know, is not always the case in the bookclub!)


  4. […] said in my previous post about Damon Young’s The Art of Reading that I didn’t expect to read it straight through, all in one go, as I usually do – but I […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: