Our moment is starved for this sort of intellectual spirit:
We think we (read well), but mostly we don’t. To read is to get inside another person’s mind, to think with another person’s thoughts, to grasp the world as another person grasps it. If we don’t know how to do that, we can never get in touch with people who have lived at different periods and in different circumstances from our own. And in that case we are imprisoned in the narrow range of our own direct experience or in the stifling cultural perspectives of our own class, nation, or period of history. Reading is the key that lets us out of prison into a broad landscape where we may walk up and down and learn things that no living person can teach us.
The great figures in academic life are not those who write big books, but who read well; and they are surprisingly rare. Or perhaps not surprisingly, since the emptying of self which reading requires is alien to the academic mind as well, full as it is of wonderfully interesting thoughts that demand early publication, clever responses, and retorts that prove a book worthless before one has got to the end of it.
Here, too, the stillness necessary to hear what is meant is hard to achieve. Those who have this great virtue are peculiarly luminous; they ennoble the lives of others by emancipating others from the prisons of fashionable thinking. Invariably they are storm-beaten individuals, since they do not consent to the fashionable put-downs which constitute the meat and drink of academic debate. They resist fashion, which fashion never likes, not with the posturing resistance of counter-suggestibility, which is not independence, merely a negative echo, but with the rooted firmness of an acquired perspective.