Livelier Than the Living

The more successful and happy I am, the less time I have for reading books because I am too busy with people I love. Abundant time for reading is my solace for losing in life (I have no wealth, power, marriage, and children).

Catherine Nicholson writes for

In the Renaissance, reading became both a passion and a pose of detachment—for those who could afford it—from the pursuits of wealth and power.

“I daily listen to your words with more attention than one would believe, and perhaps I shall not be thought impertinent in wishing to be heard by you,” wrote the Italian poet Petrarch in 1348. His addressee was the Roman philosopher Seneca, who had died nearly thirteen centuries before. Petrarch’s practice of writing to long-dead authors epitomizes—and helped to initiate—the essential double movement of humanist imitatio, the exchange by which schoolboys and scholars across late medieval and early modern Europe formed their ideas, values, images, tastes, and turns of phrase along the lines of an antiquity they were just beginning to regard (but had not yet begun to speak of) as “classical.”

The American scholar Thomas Greene in The Light in Troy, his 1982 study of humanism’s intimate relation to and sense of estrangement from the ancient world, called imitatio “a literary technique that was also a pedagogic method and a critical battleground.” Whom to take as one’s exemplars and how closely to follow them, which models to embrace and which to avoid or improve upon, were subjects of fervent debate. In theory, emulating the best of what had been written fostered expressiveness; “in practice,” Greene allows, “it led not infrequently to sterility.”

…channels the allure, for Petrarch and those who came after him, of a life in books, its pleasures “more intimate and more intense than the satisfaction afforded by other worldly goods.” But such intimacy came at a cost: “A sense of being unsuited to one’s times, a feeling, almost, of extraneousness and alienation.”

There is often a whiff of misanthropy about Petrarch’s passion for books.

…No doubt Virgil, Horace, Boethius, and Cicero had their own human failings—“they may have been difficult and stubborn”; they too may have suffered from halitosis—but in their writings “the flower and fruit of their intellect is undiluted and abounding.” As Bolzoni observes, this is a significant alteration of existing commonplaces about books as mirrors:

“The ghost one encounters through reading is better than the real person; the book remains the mirror of the soul, but it is a mirror that selects the best, that refines the image we see in it, cleansing it of all traces of mundane existence.”

…Reading was a passion in early modern Italy, Bolzoni shows, but it was also a pose, an emblem of “aristocratic detachment” from the pursuits of wealth, power, and social connections, on which access to and ownership of books practically depended.

…Occasionally, one senses some strain in the narrative—a hint of how the self-flattering mythology of reading might compensate, or fail to compensate, for the inability to find other sources of purpose and fulfillment.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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