The mind is dulled, not fed, by inordinate reading

Quote of the Day for Tuesday, March 8th, 2011:

More from A. G. Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life, from the section “Reading” in the chapter “Preparation for Work,” on “not reading much” as a prerequisite to intellectual vitality:

What we are proscribing is the passion for reading, the uncontrolled habit, the poisoning of the mind by excess of mental food, the laziness in disguise which prefers easy familiarity with others’ thought to personal effort.

The passion for reading which many pride themselves on as a precious intellectual quality, is in reality a defect; it differs in no wise from the other passions that monopolize the soul, keep it in a state of disturbance, set up in it uncertain currents and cross-currents, and exhaust its powers.

The mind is dulled, not fed, by inordinate reading, it is made gradually incapable of reflection and concentration, and therefore of production; it grows inwardly extroverted, if one can so express oneself, becomes the slave of its mental images, of the ebb and flow of ideas on which it has eagerly fastened its attention. This uncontrolled delight is an escape from self; it ousts the intelligence from its function and allows it merely to follow point for point the thoughts of others, to be carried along in the stream of words, developments, chapters, volumes.

Can you imagine what this guy would have had to say regarding television?

As unintuitive as this thought might seem at first blush, I quickly recognized its truth as I read through it. I cannot deny, for example, that when I am feeling mentally lazy, I reach for something to read – so I won’t have to think too much. At its worst, that amounts to web browsing. At best, it means making headway in a book, but at times like those I tend to avoid the books I’m grinding through in favor of something either light or novel (or both), and the fact that I’m inclined to doze off while reading unless I’m mentally sharp at the time just further proves the point.

And then there’s truly useless reading (Sertillanges even says of newspapers: “defend yourself against them” – Amen, I say!), about which I’ll say nothing more than that Sertillanges’ proscription is a useful parallel to my occasional snarky reply to the invariably breathless claim that education is an important and necessary good: It might be important, but it’s not good. An education in virtue is an important and necessary good, yes, but an education in evil is an education neither necessary nor good, and one I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. The distinction is important.