I have worried more than is normal about the diet of books I read. This worry began in the dimmest far reaches of my childhood and, if it did not culminate, it certainly climaxed in my PhD dissertation, which was essentially an investigation into the philosophical possibility of having a bad reading diet. You might describe my dissertation as a drawn-out panic attack about literary nutrition.
The idea that the books I consume constitute a diet feels almost primordial. When I was a child certain restrictions were imposed on me that forced me to conceive of reading from a distance, as a cumulative activity with a definite complexion. For a while I was required to get an equal number of fiction and nonfiction books from the library. For the whole of my life under my parents’ roof, I was required to read different books on Sundays, for religious reasons, than I read on the other six days of the week. And, also for religious reasons, some books were considered essential — those comprising the Bible — and all the others contingent and elective. These given features of my childhood reading, imposed from without, forced me to think of reading as a diet that could be healthy or unhealthy.
But I didn’t assume adult responsibility for my reading diet until, sometime in my pre-teens, my mother began to keep a list of all the books I finished. This was for the purpose of documenting my home-schooling, but it had the effect of bringing into focus for me the precise complexion of my diet. I began to think about things like how many “classics” I had read. I remember poring over the dover catalog of $1 books, for which I was periodically given a gift of money, trying to divide my treasure into the purchase of an ideal complement of books that would move me closer to being well-read. (The strange virtue of being “well-read” infected my ambitions far too early.) To those who adopt the attitude that reading is, at best, a pleasurable hobby, this approach sounds masochistic, but it worked for me, and I read many books out of a sense of self-imposed duty, barely comprehending them, which became favorites after the fact and now form the basis for the pleaure I take in reading philosophy and poetry and biography. Without that early forcing I would not be able to attend to or enjoy many kinds of books today.
Anyway, this concern for my reading diet grew and intensified into a kind of obsession, a need to eat the world through reading, or at least to eat a representative sample of the world through a perfectly balanced diet of reading. When I went to college, my mother stopped recording what I read. With a kind of desperate relief, I didn’t continue the record myself; I allowed a whole new set of obsessions to replace those concerning my diet of reading.
This abeyance of concern lasted exactly four years. When I arrived in Boston to become a PhD candidate in philosophy, suddenly the old worry returned, redoubled, and I started recording my reading again. But now, instead of the idea that there was a single ideal of well-read-ness, and a universally appropriate diet of books to approach that ideal, I became certain that one’s reading diet should be adapted to one’s intellectual goals. Being a graduate student, as I understood it, was primarily a matter of reading. (I still think that.) I designed vast and elaborate reading projects, stemming from my vast and elaborate intellectual ambitions, and I worked doggedly through them. I worked so doggedly through them that I think I may have burned out my capacity to stick to any kind of reading project — since earning my PhD, I’ve been unable to make myself follow that kind of program; I rebel against myself. But then the moment arrived — that obnoxious moment that arrives in the life of any PhD candidate — when I had to outline a proposal for a specific, narrow, precise intellectual project that would become my dissertation, and suddenly I realized that what I wanted to write about was the meta-problem of whether there was such a thing as a nutritious reading diet at all.
This problem had to be massaged into the terms and problematics of the discipline I was ostensibly training in. I found an angle: there was a smattering, over philosophy’s 2500 or so years of continuous development, of arguments about what I started to call “evil stories.” From Plato on down, lots of philosophers and philosophy-ajacent moralists had argued that certain stories — primarily those featuring characters who did very bad things — were morally corrupting. They were bad for you, and should be avoided or else carefully embedded in a diet of morally uplifting stories. I decided to collect and evaluate these arguments, and I built a typically tendentious graduate-student-style apparatus to do this, drawing together notions of moral exemplarism, a role-centered meta-ethics, an account of the psychology of narrative experience as mental simulation, and so on, and turned it into a dissertation. I don’t think I settled anything about the problem, or even advanced it much in any direction, but the exercise was valuable in the way any dissertation is valuable — as a massive attempt to organize original thinking and research into a coherent statement about something — and, more personally, it seemed permanently to quiet the nagging voice of literary conscience that constantly worried me about my reading diet. My dissertation was entitled “In Defense of Evil Stories: A Study in the Ethics of Audition,” but it might well have been titled, “It’s Fine, Read Whatever the Fuck You Want.”
Which brings us up to the present, about two years after defending that disseration. I’m knee-deep in the attempt to become a full time writer, and I’ve found the concern about nutritious reading creeping back into my consciousness, but in a new way. I’ve noticed how much what I read affects my ability to write new words every day. I need my reading to remind me of why I want to be a writer — how much I love books — but also to illustrate the ways I could write better and to supply a steady fuel of new ideas. I write best, I’ve discovered, if half of what I read is fiction, and the other half a nice mix of poetry, history/biography, essays, and hard systematic philosophy. The fiction keeps up my enthusiasm, lights my way forward. The poetry keeps me sharp, attentive to words and lines and sentences. The history and biography flood me with ideas for stories and essays. The essays just delight me. And the systematic philosophy reminds me of the possibility of rigorous thinking and the necessity of conceptual clarity. Additionally, I’m discovering it’s very important to equally divide my reading in every area between the extremely contemporary — what is found in up-to-the-minute periodicals, for example — and the much-neglected past, a parallax view necessary for me to think an original thought or write an original sentence.
I suppose my present notion of literary dietetics is the most closely analogous to actual nutrition and real dietetics. I read an article recently about the personal cooks retained my various athletes — from basketball players to chess champions — and I was struck by the similarity to how I think about my reading. It’s a fun part of life, but also a deadly serious matter of metabolic science, required for elite performance. The gas for the engine, the electricity in the wire.