I highly recommend Mark Edmundson's recent essay "The Ideal English Major," published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. It's an exhortation for college-bound young people to consider the value of studying literature over pursuing a more "marketable" degree...but substitute "serious reader" for "English major" and much of this lovely essay applies to us all. Here's a taste:
"The English major [and the serious reader] reads because, as rich as the one life he has may be, one life is not enough. He reads not to see the world through the eyes of other people but effectively to become other people. What is it like to be John Milton, Jane Austen, Chinua Achebe? What is it like to be them at their best, at the top of their games?
"English majors want the joy of seeing the world through the eyes of people who -- let us admit it -- are more sensitive, more articulate, shrewder, sharper, more alive than they themselves are. The experience of merging minds and hearts with Proust or James or Austen makes you see that there is more to the world than you had ever imagined. You see that life is bigger, sweeter, more tragic and intense -- more alive with meaning than you had thought.
"Real reading is reincarnation. There is no other way to put it. It is being born again into a higher form of consciousness than we ourselves possess. When we walk the streets of Manhattan with Walt Whitman or contemplate our hopes for eternity with Emily Dickinson, we are reborn into more ample and generous minds.
" 'Life piled on life / Were all too little,' says Tennyson's 'Ulysses,' and he is right. Given the ragged magnificence of the world, who would wish to live only once? The English major lives many times through the astounding transportive magic of words and the welcoming power of his receptive imagination. The economics major? In all probability he lives but once. If the English major has enough energy and openness of heart, he lives not once but hundreds of times. Not all books are worth being reincarnated into, to be sure—but those that are win Keats's sweet phrase: 'a joy forever.' "
You can read the rest of this lovely essay here.
The art above: "Lady Reading in an Interior" by Marguerite Gérard (French, 1761-1837); "Young Man Reading by Candlelight" by Matthias Stom (Dutch, mid 17th century); "Reading" by Eastman Johnson (American, 1824-1906); "Interior with Young Man Reading" by Vilhelm Hammershøi (Danish, 1864-1916); "Interior with Girl Reading" by Henrique Bernardelli (Brazilian, 1858-1936); "Young Woman Reading" by Giovanni Fattori (Italy, 1825-1908); "Reading" and "Le horla" by Anna & Elena Balbusso (Italy, contemporary); Girl in Grey by Louis le Brocquy (Irish, 1916 – 2012); "Lytton Stratchey Reading" by Vanessa Bell; and "Girl Studying" by Susan MacDowell Eakins (American, 1851-1938).