Words and photographs by Kevin Rabalais
Leonard Michaels’s 1990 autobiographical novel, Sylvia, begins with a description of the main character, Leonard, returning to New York City after five years of graduate school at two universities and still without a Ph.D. For what, he wonders, has all of his time reading literature prepared him? Leonard, whose only desire is to write stories, describes himself as “an overspecialised man, twenty-seven years old, who smoked cigarettes and could give no better account of himself than to say ‘I love to read.’”
“But why do I read?” asks the Polish poet and essayist Adam Zagajewski in A Defense of Ardor. “Do I really need to answer this question?”
Encouraging young poets to “please read everything,” Zagajewski writes about the various roles literature plays in our lives:
It’s rare to encounter a reader who chooses to live inside only one book at a time. Zagajewski, recipient of the 2004 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, ponders the reason we find ourselves persistently crossing the borders of genre and time, slipping in and out of several books during a day or week, often with little thought, only an innate need.
Zagajewski admits that his own reading is chaotic. He’s suspicious of specialized reading, the kind, say, in which biologists read only biology or poets read only poetry:
And perhaps this is precisely why we cross those borders, moving through time and place in search of “the deep common source of culture.” Even if it means that some of us can offer no better account of ourselves (though what better account of our lives might we hope to offer?) than “I love to read,” Zagajewski encourages us to persevere, in this endeavor, “chaotically":