Monday, March 3, 2008


Last Thursday, I stayed up late reading “The Shining Wire” chapter of Watership Down, a favorite section from a favorite book. I paid for it by stumbling and yawning all the way through the next day. The chapter wasn’t new to me. So why did I willfully ignore the clock?

For joy. For the visceral pleasure of reading beautiful writing.

Many people don’t understand it. A long-time family friend confessed that he could no longer justify to himself the reading of fiction. He had a limited amount of time and he wanted to spend it doing things that are useful. My father expressed bafflement at the very idea of verse. “Why would anyone write a poem?” he asked and pointed at a palm waving in the wind. “See there? That’s a tree. Enough said. It doesn’t need a poem.”

Some admit that the pleasurable aspects of reading aren’t a complete waste -- as long as you learn something worthwhile in the process. Sir Philip Sidney might have said that poesy is “delightful teaching,” but Leland Ryken notes in his essay “‘Words of Delight’: A Hedonistic Defense of Literature” that “Sidney finally rests his case for the importance of literature with a utilitarian exaltation of the power of literature to move its readers to good moral behavior. … The emphasis falls on the noun, with the adjective bearing a subordinate role.”

But we don’t divide our lives into neat utilitarian categories, do we? A box here for work, another here for family, a third for personal betterment, and all our resources neatly apportioned between them. Instead, we look for pleasure. Pascal
wrote, “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end.” And the world does more than its part to accommodate us. This morning I had a cup of French-pressed Sumatra Mandheling and savored the flavors of earth and bitter chocolate as they rolled across my tongue. Midmorning, the sun broke through a blowing rainstorm, turning droplets into diamonds. Tonight I watched the sweep of my wife’s neck as she read the paper, the way the curls of her hair fell across it, gleaming. In life, we have an overabundance of things with little utilitarian function and we still long for them with our innermost being.

Tonight I’m going to sweat away on the Stairmaster because it’s good for me and I want to live past middle age. It won’t be total torture, though, because while I do it I’m going to follow Richard Adams’ brave bunnies into peril and adventure and a whole lot of fun.

(Picture: CC 2005 by *Your Guide)

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