Getting a mental kick from tackling tough books

By Blake Gopnik
Sunday, August 15, 2010

Not too long ago, I experienced one of those reading highs you don't get very often. I have to thank an illness, and pharmaceuticals, for it.

It was last winter, and I had to take a few weeks' sick leave, on medication that kept me up, and sharp, most of the night. Each morning when I got up -- at 2 a.m. -- I'd trundle off to the sofa to read until my wife came down for breakfast. For some reason (a.k.a. drugs) the books I chose were not what you'd think of as light bedside reading: The collected writings of Rosalind Krauss, one of the smarter, and thornier, art thinkers of our era; a huge tome on Renaissance ideas about time and tradition by Alex Nagel and Chris Wood, two professor friends of mine who leave me feeling like a somewhat challenged fifth-grader.

This kind of reading you can't take on lightly, in moments between weeding the garden and answering your e-mail, or after a long day of meetings. You need some serious time -- or some serious sickness and drugs -- to clear the decks for such texts. They presented complex arguments to follow and difficult thoughts to parse. Some paragraphs and pages, even the occasional whole essay or chapter, needed several readings to sink in. Taking notes helped.

It wasn't the writing that called for all that labor, though there was some chewy prose. If my brain was sweating, it was because genuinely subtle, imaginative thinking rarely reads like a thriller. (I know: I own almost the complete works of Robert Ludlum, given to me by my son. He knows that once I pick up one of those trash novels, I can't put it down.)

The thing is, getting through those complex books, and really grasping what they had to say, gave a thrill such as I hadn't had in ages. My body may have felt lousy and old, but my brain felt in better form than it had since grad school.

We all lead such insanely busy lives, and do so much multitasking, that there's no way we can take in really complex or important new thoughts. Most of us are stuck with whatever big ideas we studied in college. Even in the fields we make a living in, we're more likely to rely on what we learned at school, or pick up pell-mell on the job, than on new reading in depth. How many lawyers with cases to argue and clients to bill can catch up with the latest big ideas on law, or with the big ideas of Plato or Aquinas that they missed out on years ago?

The one stretch of undistracted time most of us have is when we take vacation. The temptation -- my temptation, almost always succumbed to -- is to go catatonic, escaping the working world into the oblivion of Ludlum. But when I settle into my next holiday, I'm hoping to resist that urge. I hope to use the rare gift of an empty mind to grapple with a big idea or two -- with a chunk of Marx, maybe, since I've never read a word he's actually written, or with that Foucault that's been gathering dust.

Judging from my experience last winter, once you get over the initial hump and start to dig into a text that's big and weighty, you get an unmatched mental charge.

We play tennis on vacation, or go for strenuous hikes. We might get just as much pleasure from working out some little-used parts of our brains.

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