Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Purpose of Reading 3

If you search for the "Purpose of Books" you will find dozens of websites repeating (with small variations) a quotation from Christopher Morley stating that the real purpose of books is to trap (or perhaps to inspire) the mind into doing its own thinking. I have also found some other quotes by Morley on books and reading. However, I have been unable to find the original source for the "purpose of books" quote.

Trap or inspire? Is one version of the quote incorrect, or did Morley himself produce two different versions of his aphorism? I rather like the uncertainty of having two alternative versions, because it makes me wonder about the curious equation "trap=inspire". Reminds me of the famous cat that might be either dead (trapped) or alive (inspired).

But there is still something perverse about the apparently endless repetition of Morley's once-meaningful quote, ripped from its context and pinned to the internet by countless Bouvards and P├ęcuchets. If the purpose of reading is to entrap and enchant the mind, surely the effect of this quotation is the exact opposite - to allow the dull mind to escape the effort of thinking.

Some writers of the past have been completely reduced to the fragmented rubble of quotations (I guess the greatest of these being Heraclitus). But much of Morley's work is still available to the modern reader, thanks to Project Gutenberg and Quotidiana. See for example his essay On Visiting Bookshops (1920). I was about to give you a quote from it, but I stopped myself in time. You'll just have to read the whole thing yourself.

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