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Consolations for the overwhelmed reader

Updated: Mar 10

Words by Oskar Jonsson


As a fresher, or even as an experienced returning student, the start of the semester can feel overwhelming to say the least. All the new faces, places, and things to do. And overshadowing it all: the daunting studies themselves. The daily reading, those long hours at desks, in libraries or in bed, eye to eye with what can sometimes feel like your worst enemy: those accursed words on the page (and the one after and the one after that). Chained to your books, you are kept away from all those new faces, places, and things you would rather see and do. In an attempt to address this dilemma my dear overwhelmed reader, I would like to turn your attention to an essay by the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer to see what potential consolation we can glean from it.


The patron saint of German philosophical pessimism, Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), stood in vehement opposition to the ideas of his contemporaries, and his work would come to influence Nietzsche as well as later existentialist thought and Freudian psychology. For the purposes of this blog post we can simply settle for the fact that he is an influential 19th-century philosopher. With that established, let us now move on to the essay at hand: On Reading and Books published in 1851.


In the aforementioned essay Schopenhauer points out that the act of reading is equal to the thinking of someone else’s thoughts, namely those of the writer. When we read, we do not think for ourselves but simply follow along the thoughts articulated by the author. That is to say that the writer does the heavy work of thinking for the reader. This is obviously a key part of both the instruction and pleasure we find in reading: this momentary retirement from our own brain whereby we let the mental process of someone else take centre stage, while we simply observe. Instruction and eventual pleasure aside, Schopenhauer claims that there is a downside to the nature of reading, and as anyone familiar with the pessimism of Schopenhauer will know, he truly excels in downsides. In our case, as overwhelmed students seeking justification for some much-desired pause from our pathologically attention-seeking course books, this downside may nonetheless actually prove to be a beacon of light.


If one reads widely and for long periods, as students will often find themselves doing, Schopenhauer claims that the result is a wearing down of one’s own mental faculties. The reader’s full attention will now be directed towards the thoughts of the writer. Eventually, if too many hours are spent in this receptive yet passive state of mind, one’s ability to think for oneself will weaken. Schopenhauer provides us with a telling image, that of an equestrian who only ever rides, and whose ability to walk is eventually compromised for lack of practice. Thus, Schopenhauer claims that all too many students “have read themselves stupid”. In addition, the more one reads the less one can remember of what one reads, and if one reads without ever pausing to reflect upon what one has read, forgetting is bound to ensue. Schopenhauer likens the intake of information via reading with the intake of bodily nourishment: “scarcely a fiftieth part of what is taken in is assimilated”.


What can we as students make of these observations? Well, firstly, that just as important as reading itself is the pausing, the non-reading, the taking of time to reflect and simply stay away from our books. Secondly, that if one, particularly as a fresher or undergrad, feels small when encountering well-read, hyper-studious, library-dwelling postgrads and PhD students, one can always, in the back of one’s mind, entertain the confidence-bolstering notion that perhaps these people might in fact merely be poor deluded souls who, unbeknownst to themselves, are well on their way to having read themselves stupid.


So, the next time you want to break away from the conscientious magnetism of your course books and do something more fun, I hope that you now feel strengthened by the ability to namedrop an influential 19th-century philosopher in your defence. Because you do not want to read yourself stupid, now do you? To finish this post, I would like to leave you with some handpicked lines from the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s poem Oda al libro (Ode to the book):


When I close a book

I open life

[…]

The ocean’s surge is calling

[…]

Book, let me go.

[…]

send books back to their shelves,

I’m going down into the streets.

I learned about life

from life itself,

[…]

Translated by Nathaniel Tarn


I invite you to calligraph these lines onto a bookmark, which you will keep during your time at the University of Sussex, and hope that you shall not be afraid to use it regularly.


Photograph courtesy of Fiona Green

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