EUSEBIUS MCKAISER | A meditation: The joy and value of reading

28 September 2022 - 07:00
By Eusebius McKaiser
We should not regard the voracious reader as a loner, a nerd, a bore. We should see them as we do someone with a serious artistic appreciation of music or art, writes Eusebius McKaiser. File photo.
Image: MADELEINE CHAPUT We should not regard the voracious reader as a loner, a nerd, a bore. We should see them as we do someone with a serious artistic appreciation of music or art, writes Eusebius McKaiser. File photo.

My grandmother was such a hypocrite. When her friends visited she would brag about my voracious reading. When her friends were not visiting she would caution me to read less, saying, “Jy gaan mal word [You will go crazy]” .

Minutes later the hypocrisy would continue when she told me the story of a clever girl in the community who was wrongly told to stop reading for the sake of her health, and adding this was simply an apartheid-era tactic to stop black children being educated. Yet she shouted at me for reading too much. 

I ignored the warning about madness. Instead, I loved her bragging about my reading habits, even if I pretended to be shy when she asked me to tell her friends how many pages the last novel had that I had read. I would happily show them a copy of The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, which was more than 700 pages in length. 

I would sit in our kitchen, long after everyone had gone to bed, and read into the early hours of the morning. When my grandmother woke to go to the bathroom, I would listen carefully, wondering whether she would leave me in peace or tell me it was way too late to be up. Mostly I was left to escape into the worlds of books, a quiet teenager who was very different in personality to the adult I would later become.

My grandmother also pretended to be concerned about my development when she boasted to her friends, “Die kind het nie tjommies nie. Dit is net boeke en dai chess speel. Hy wil nie buite gaan speel nie [This child does not have friends. It is just books and chess. He doesn’t want to go play outside)”. She knew, of course, her friends wished they could say the same about their grandchildren.

I recently found myself meditating on the joy and value of reading. That is what made these childhood memories come flooding back.

I want to say something coherent and interesting about reading, I hope, but without resorting to platitudes or hollow aphorisms. This is the burden training in analytic philosophy saddles one with as a writer. But to capture the sheer joy of reading, I thought it best to simply describe what I experience when reading. 

I am working my way through two very different books, both of which deserve full reviews. The Blinded City, based on 10 years of research in inner-city Johannesburg, is an exquisite book by Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon. A reductive description of the book is that it is about “hijacked buildings” in Johannesburg. But because of the narrative journalism style Wilhelm-Solomon is a master of, and which he employs here, the book has multiple themes, multiple characters and multiple stories and they happen to converge on the streets of Johannesburg. 

Even without context, take the following excerpt from The Blinded City: “She [Caroline] marched Percy and me through the streets of Chitungwiza, greeting old friends, helping herself to sugar cane from street-side stalls. I had never seen her so relaxed, so joyful. She seemed both in and out of place. Her movements, sharp and electric, were out of sync with the leisurely pace of the area.

“She lit a joint and smoked openly in the streets, a scandalous act in an area where it was a social taboo for women to smoke. She took us to her sister’s house a few hundred metres away. Her sister worked as a nurse in Johannesburg and was also visiting. There, we had tea with her sister and her daughters in front of the television and chatted about life in the city, about their family history. This warm, familial world seemed very distant from the life Caroline led in inner-city Johannesburg, with all the pain it held for her.”

I have no idea how many books I read last year or this year. I do not care to keep score. I read because reading is magical

Reading these sentences, I feel Caroline's joy, her very basic “at home” security, like a child excited to be hosting her friends and showing them around. I feel these feelings in my tummy as I read, and my throat becomes knotty when the second paragraph ends in the juxtaposition of the relative safety of home and “the pain” the author says is attached to her adopted home, Johannesburg. 

Although I was sitting at my desk, on a hard chair, my back straight, when I first read these words, in my mind I was lying down on my bed upstairs, blanket over me, in the joyous foetal position and being transported to Zimbabwe, actually being in Zimbabwe. That is what reading does. That is what good writing does. 

To read is to embark on a deeply private, intersubjective journey which starts when your brain — and your entire being — collide with the words in the text. Provided, of course, you read actively, and intentionally orient yourself such that you open the doors of textual perception. 

The only way to be intentional about reading, and reading actively, is by taking steps to connect with the text. I recently shared this thought on Facebook in response to someone who had asked me how I manage to read as many books as I do. (Of course, all keen readers always feel they do not read enough. So I struggle to accept the implication of the question that I “read a lot”. One life is not enough for all the reading I desire to complete.) 

I added to my answer with the following advice: I dislike the question of how many books I read a week or per month because it is the wrong metric to focus on. Do not obsess about how much you read. Just read, I said. If you read to tick off a list then you will be less likely to enjoy reading, and less likely to engage productively with the text.

I don’t focus on how many books I read. Frankly, I have no idea how many books I read last year or this year. I do not care to keep score. I read because reading is magical. I do not read to be able to tell you on Instagram or Twitter or Facebook that I had read a book. I tell you what I read, yes, but I do so because I am excited about sharing the joy (or pain) of what I had read. 

Wilhelm-Solomon’s book, for example, is one I have been reading very slowly, and not rushing to have my review out just because others have already published theirs. I am giving myself permission to read a few chapters, enjoy the work aesthetically, put it down and think critically about it, and even read other stuff in between. In fact, I have started and finished a few books while still reading The Blinded City. That reflects well, not poorly, on this text.

By contrast, I have quickly worked my way through Blazing A Trail by Lincoln Mali. It focuses on leadership, within an African context, drawing on fascinating biographical material based on Mali’s leadership experiences within political student movements, the public sector and private sector, and in banking in particular. 

Again, the reading experience has an affective component. Mali is a compelling storyteller, and has a very interesting family history that maps onto the grand history of colonialism and apartheid in ways that make you wish he had stayed with the biographical components longer than he does. He moves between biography and concrete analysis of leadership as such. In the end, he probably gets the balance right for the imagined audiences and different readers who will come to the book.

I journeyed with Mali to many places from Hogsback to Grahamstown, Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg and many countries on our continent such as Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe. I felt like a traveller while reading. 

The search for a template of reading is fruitless. The only necessary caution is that you should read with your eyes wide open, with a sense of curiosity and maybe even putting your phone on flight mode and the TV off? Which brings me to the question about the value of reading. 

Disrupting someone who is travelling inside a book is as rude as interrupting a couple having an intimate dinner

I think reading is massively underappreciated. Most of us recognise reading as obviously being functionally or instrumentally useful. And many of us (not Kanye West, who proudly proclaimed recently he has not read a single book, comparing it to eating Brussels sprouts) recognise reading can be pleasurable. It can be a source of joy.

Reading, I am inclined to think, is more than a source of joy. After all, eating tasty ice cream on a hot summer’s day is joyous, but not much deeper than that (even if it is Häagen-Dazs Dulce De Leche). Immersive reading experiences are a source of creative and intellectual nourishment. I think it is constitutive in part of an artistic or a meaningful life. That is why it is criminal to deprive people of the opportunity to learn to read, beyond functional level, and to help them fall in love with the magic of books.

The implication of my claim is that we should not regard the voracious reader as a loner, a nerd, a bore. We should see them as we do someone with a serious artistic appreciation of music or art. This is why I get annoyed when I am sitting alone, reading, and my doing so is seen as an invitation to be disturbed — a cry for company — but if I was with another person someone walking by would think twice before interrupting. When we read, we are not alone. Disrupting someone who is travelling inside a book is as rude as interrupting a couple having an intimate dinner.

At the funeral of my uncle in Makhanda recently, I shared a memory of him that I treasure. As a kid, I have many different memories of him. On the one hand, he could be a loud menace when under the addictive spell of alcohol. That was not cool. It leaves you feeling volatile as a kid, not knowing what might happen when he was in that state.

But on some days, I’d come back from school and the kitchen would be spotless, and his pots smelling delicious as the yummy aromas of food he was preparing were wafting through the air. The spotlessness was his trademark: he self-congratulated his habit of cleaning every utensil and every surface immediately after use rather than only cleaning up after dinner had been served. 

On these days, I would also find my uncle lying on the bed in the room that looks onto the kitchen with a book in his hand. One of these was The Famished Road by Ben Okri. My uncle would be very quiet, concentrating intensely, and only a chef’s instinct about when to check on the pots would move him from his reading position. I didn’t have the words or inclination to tell him then, but I was moved and inspired by his occasional metamorphosis from bullying addict to reader in the sense I argued for above: immersed in the text, opening the doors of textual perception, and journeying to worlds far away from Grahamstown. 

I shared the story at his funeral to honour his unrealised creative and intellectual potential that is the sad sordid story of black people’s lives located within racist and impoverished social structures. 

I was happy I now had the speaking skill, in between shedding tears, to invite fellow mourners, from the podium in the Catholic church I had grown up in, to think differently about the man in the coffin they had wanted to remember as “the life of the party”.

Readers have secret lives. So my uncle had secret lives. Only fellow readers know this. It is a beautiful thing. That is why we should collectively do better in building and ferociously entrenching a rich culture of reading.


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