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Do We Read Differently at Different Ages?

Newspaper article International New York Times

Do We Read Differently at Different Ages?

Article excerpt

Kierkegaard's arguments had seemed overwrought when I was younger because my own perception was shallow.

Kierkegaard's arguments had seemed overwrought when I was younger because my own perception was shallow.

"In fashioning a work of art, we are by no means free," Proust wrote. "We do not choose how we shall make it." But are we free to choose how we shall comprehend it? After all, we bring to our readings an ever mutating mix of desires, memories, prejudices and fears -- what Buddhists call the "no-self."

This kind of mental conditioning reveals itself most clearly over time. More than 20 years ago, I read, or more accurately, set out to read, Soren Kierkegaard's "Two Ages"; the Danish thinker, along with Simone Weil, made Christianity interesting, even attractive, to a heathen like myself. I remember being struck, too, by his frictionless experiments with literary forms: "Two Ages" is an early example of a book review that disguises an essayistic tour d' horizon.

In it, Kierkegaard deplores the mass society that in the mid- 19th century was coming into being across Europe, and what he saw as the general diminishment of the individual by the very means -- public opinion, press -- devised to enlighten and unify individuals into an equitable society. He doubts if the unmoored individual can be saved by the new "idea of sociality, of community," and fears that unreflexive envy was "the negatively unifying principle" of the new "public."

When I first read the book, there seemed something haughty about his analysis. Kierkegaard often appeared cantankerous about the "crowd" that presumably dissolved organic social structures and undermined traditional values. His search for "inwardness" also seemed to me symptomatic of the general withdrawal from public life of artists and intellectuals -- one that was to prove politically counterproductive as demagogues helped by the popular press rose to power in Europe. His dislike of newspapers sounded eccentric, if not irrational.

I have since gone back to the book this summer, with different results. My earlier adverse reading, I now recognize, was conditioned by liberal platitudes: that mass media promotes literacy and political awareness, and that the communications revolution is bringing together people from different parts of the world. …

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