Reading Randomly

literary conference

If you read this blog regularly, you might’ve already heard some of my ideas about reading “randomly” or “for no reason.” By this I mean the purposely haphazard approach I sometimes take toward obtaining books and selecting which ones to read. It’s kind of absurd, even nonsensical – buying a book at a yard sale or picking one out of a box of “junk” left on the curb the morning of recycling day, I’ll often choose a title that doesn’t appeal to me, a novel or memoir or historical survey or self-help book that I’d probably never, ever pay full price for (if I’d even pick it up to read the back). I place the book on a shelf and, one day, on a whim – because I caught sight of the spine as I walked by, because the cat knocked it off its perch, because the cover is the same color as the book I’d just finished – I set all my other reading plans aside and dig in.

Reading only those books that I actively want to read puts me in a sort of box, and this practice of random reading tugs me out of those false and, usually, unproductive confines. And even though these choices aren’t governed by rational thought (or any kind of thought at all), I often find delightful connections and echoes between these seemingly unrelated books. And it’s there, in the friction that occurs between these disparate yet somehow related texts, that I have some of my most interesting thoughts and best ideas. It’s in the collision of things that haven’t been combined before that newness is born – each crash like a tiny Big Bang, giving way to a novel universe. By now and again reading randomly, you’re doing about as much as you possibly can to guarantee that your thoughts and ideas are unique, expressive of your individuality alone.

I’ve believed all this for a long time – since, I suppose, the first time I picked up a random book (probably as a kid browsing my parents’ bookshelves, or needing to kill a few minutes between classes at school, or maybe waiting for my appointment to start at a doctor’s office) and found one of those delightful and unexpected connections, an echo of whatever novel I had in my backpack or on my desk back home. Just the other day, though, I came across a gorgeous, perfectly articulated statement in defense of these ideas and my somewhat absurd practice. It stunned me, and excited me, and left me briefly disoriented. It was like I’d turned a corner and bumped into myself.

The passage – from César Aira’s slim, funny, profound novel, The Literary Conference (translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver) – comes shortly after the narrator has more or less randomly solved a centuries-old enigma involving a series of complicatedly knotted ropes that, plunging into the sea, are supposedly bound to some long-dead pirate’s massive treasure chest (this turns out to be true, awesomely).

“It is not that I am a genius or exceptionally gifted, not by any means. Quite the contrary. What happened (I shall try to explain it) is that every mind is shaped by its own experiences and memories and knowledge, and what makes it unique is the grand total and extremely personal nature of the collection of all the data that have made it what it is. Each person possesses a mind with powers that are, whether great or small, always unique, powers that belong to them and to them alone. This renders them capable of carrying out a feat, whether grandiose or banal, that only they could have carried out. In this case, all others had failed because they had counted on the simple quantitative progression of intelligence and ingenuity, when what was required was an unspecified quantity, but of the appropriate quality, of both. My own intelligence is quite minimal, a fact I have ascertained at great cost to myself. It has been just barely adequate to keep me afloat in the tempestuous waters of life. Yet, its quality is unique; not because I decided it would be, but rather because that is how it must be.

“This is and always has been the case in just this way with all people, at all times, everywhere. A single example taken from the world of culture (and what other world should we take it from?) might help clarify this point. An intellectual’s uniqueness can be established by examining their combined readings. How many people can there be in the world who have read these two books: The Philosophy of Life Experience by A. Bogdanov, and Faust by Estanislao del Campo? Let us put aside, for the moment, any reflections these books might have provoked, how they resonated or were assimilated, all of which would necessarily be personal and nontransferable. Let us instead turn to the raw fact of the two books themselves. The concurrence of both in one reader is improbable, insofar as they belong to two distinct cultural environments and neither belongs to the canon of universal classics. Even so, it is possible that one or two dozen intellectuals across a wide swathe of time and space might have taken in this twin nourishment. As soon as we add a third book, however, let us say La Poussière de soleil by Raymond Roussel, that number becomes drastically reduced. If it is not “one” (that is, I), it will come very close. Perhaps it is “two,” and I would have good reason to call the other “mon semblable, mon frère.” One more book, a fourth, and I could be absolutely certain of my solitude. But I have not read four books; chance and curiosity have placed thousands in my hands. And besides books, and without departing from the realm of culture, there are records, paintings, movies . . .

“All of that, as well as the texture of my days and nights since the day I was born, gave me a mental configuration different from all others.”

Even stripped of its context, I hope this passage will inspire you to pick up and dive into the next book you randomly, coincidentally come across (maybe, thinking of this post as the catalyst, it will be Aira’s). Because by injecting a little absurdity into your reading, you are, according to Aira, further defining and elaborating your individuality. Read randomly – you’ll enliven your imagination, and maybe even your life.

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