More and more often I feel the need to go back over a book immediately after finishing it, as if I hadn’t been able to really make it mine. I do roughly what a student does when preparing for a written test or questioning: I reread or review at a bird’s eye view, underline, highlight, annotate, summarize, gloss. Is it normal for this to happen even when, as in my case, you read for pleasure or for personal interest?
I’ll try to catch your letter from the tail: pleasure and self-interest. It will not be easy. Pleasure and interest are two words that, when you mention to squeeze them to deposit them on the shore, slip out of your hands like eels. Pleasure, it goes without saying, can be of many kinds. The bourgeois, Hegel said, does not enjoy jouissance in itself, but in representing to himself the image of that jouissance. It enjoys mental possession, so to speak. Your fear, when you finish a book, of not being able to really make it yours, will it not by chance belong to the same family? Is your pleasure in reading or in having read – in other words, in having stored the contents of the book in some shelving of an elusive internal archive?
With self-interest, things are certainly not simpler. In common parlance we roughly use it as a synonym for passion, but the intellectual history of the two terms couldn’t be more conflicting – Albert O. Hirschman’s little classic, Passions and interests, attests it right from the title. When the term became frequently used, around the late sixteenth century, it designated the totality of human aspirations, but in the following centuries it was slipped into a semantic bottleneck that ended up associating it mainly with the possession of wealth and the growth of material goods. Interest – for its tepid nature of tempered greed, prudent calculation – served nascent capitalism to harness the red-hot, generous but potentially destructive passions of the aristocratic ideal, and to replace the figure of the hero with that of the merchant. Here again the bourgeois peeps out of that famous Hegelian page.
And I will take my advice from Hegel. When you read, dear Fausto, practice enjoying “like the peasant in his roughness, his glass of beer or wine”. Let the words pass through you and flow out who knows where, without stopping to hold them back. After all, memory is a barrel full of holes, and does not lend itself to these forms of accumulation if not at the cost of a mental effort worthy of a better cause. Do not seek pleasure, seek the enjoyment, which escapes any economic calculation. Don’t read for interest, read for passion.