“When I think of it, the picture always rises in my mind, of a summer evening, the boys at play in the churchyard, and I sitting on my bed, reading as if for life.” ~ Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
This Dickens quote, mentioned by Margaret Miles in Reading for Life, captures the passion behind this book. Miles, a philosopher and historian with experience at Harvard and Berkeley, demonstrates her own desperate, lusty, gasping, grasping, and unflinchingly critical approach toward reading. Miles chooses the six authors that have most influenced her and narrates how she reads them both generously and suspiciously.
So far from a book report, the chapters light up with intellectual fireworks, as Miles brings her whole soul into engagement with these authors, seeing through their eyes a new world and seeing through their pretenses their reality. Like a lover, she plunges into their depths, but not blind to their narrowness, their faults, their inconsistencies. She has lived with them too long to fail to notice those. Miles’ capacity for love is revealed in her refusal to abandon these authors. Whenever she is dazzled by their rhetoric, she sidesteps and sees the carefully concealed flaws. When confronted with their inadequacies, she embraces them as fellow human beings and praises their intentions.
Her choice of subjects is not prescriptive. No “great books” curriculum is outlined. They are simply the authors she happened to find and never let go. Two of them, Plotinus and Augustine, were the subjects of much of her academic career. Both the care she has taken to know them all the way down and the pleasure feels in doing so radiates from the pages. Plotinus’ vision of the universe as an interconnected whole became the foundation of her worldview. Augustine’s expansive treatment of beauty and love framed her juxtaposition of the perception of beauty with social responsibility.
The modern authors are an eclectic bunch. Carl Jung, whom she discovered before studying psychology in college (what didn’t this woman study?), remains a voice in her subconscious, teaching her to balance knowledge of self and knowledge of other. The poet Rilke inspired her to become a writer, even though she had to spite his sexism to appropriate his work. Leni Riefenstahl was the most gifted film producer during the Nazi era. Consumed with her aesthetic work, she ignored the reality that her work was being used for propaganda purposes. She spent most of the rest of her life defending her actions. For Miles, she is a fantastically inspiring woman but also a cautionary tale of the potentially blinding love of beauty for beauty’s sake. Perhaps the best chapter of all is on Toni Morrison’s book Jazz, a story of grown-up love, of making grown-up love out of unlikely materials. Miles suggests that novels matter because they give us the concrete imagination necessary to make sense of the abstracts we assent to through philosophy books.
For Miles, reading is serious. It is pleasurable. It is serious because it is pleasurable. We construct ourselves in part through our imaginations, and reading expands and shapes the imagination. The aesthetic sense is something that can be honed through practice. It is a conscious decision to be aware, to be porous. Reading is one way of honing our awareness, at first by taking note of what others have noticed. Miles, raised a Christian fundamentalist, has not forgotten the power of testimony. Her book is an impassioned recounting of her own journey through reading, and it poses to the reader the same question that every testimony does: Will you accept my story as somehow your own as well? Yes, Dr. Miles, I will. I will read not just for fun or for facts, but for life.