Zadie Smith's excellent (and rather lengthy) new piece on The New York Review of Books' blog, titled "The North West London Blues," discusses the importance of libraries as social spaces. In arguing so, she's attempting to refute those who argue that libraries, with their neat shelves of printed matter, are obsolete in an era where most written knowledge is available online via a few mouse-clicks. Yet some politicians are using exactly that argument to cut library funding as part of austerity movements on all levels of government -- causing potentially enormous damage to what she calls "a significant part of our social reality."
Granted, services such as Google Books make a healthy selection of the world's printed knowledge available in digital form. And you can download a hefty volume of fiction or nonfiction onto your Kindle and Nook in a matter of seconds. But libraries have long served as the community's hub of knowledge -- and the place where many an intellectual mind found its start. The argument that libraries serve as communities' social glue is a fine one to make, but you also can't understate their importance as fuel sources for the world's future scholars and mental titans.
The true intellectual is a glutton for reading material. Magazines and scholarly journals, biographies and other nonfiction, novels and short stories, poetry and street posters: all beg for attention and study. Through reading we absorb some of the richest ideas floating through the collective unconsciousness, the ones too subtle and complex for expression in a two-hour movie or pithy sound bite. These ideas, in turn, solidify the foundation on which the intellectual builds their own palace of knowledge. There's a reason scholars assemble expansive collections of books, and it's not because all that paper and cardboard makes for dynamite wall furnishings.
Some concepts absorbed through reading are easy to comprehend. Who doesn't get the moral in Aesop's fable of the tortoise and the hare, or understand why Hamlet wants to stab his father's killer? Still other texts prove far more difficult to digest, especially "experimental" ones along the lines of Joyce's Finnegans Wake (with its narrative use of idioglossia, which just became your dictionary word of the day, you're welcome) or Neal Stephenson's Anathem (a sprawling novel, its difficulty trebled by virtue of being written in a fictional dialect of English).
The intellectual should make an effort to comprehend the themes and plot of the more difficult texts, and not only because other intellectuals frequently cite such works as their "favorites." Absorbing them adds the highest-quality material to the intellectual's knowledge base, in turn enriching his or her own thoughts. Plus it gives you something new to brag about at parties.
Putting This Theory Into Practice
Visit your local library and peruse. The intellectual at a loss for reading matter should also consider the Modern Library's 100 Best Novels (the list, including Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Nabokov's Lolita, is available at modernlibrary.com), as well as recommendations from friends with trusted taste.
Reading is one thing, but comprehension is quite another. The first time I picked up Dante's Inferno (the Robert Pinsky translation), it quickly became my Battle of the Somme, a line-by-line grind through the rhetorical mud in search of understanding: too many references to obscure Italian counts, Renaissance assassinations, monsters from antiquity. For many of history's greatest works that prove difficult, publishers offer an "annotated edition" complete with copious notes and explanations. Find it.
With the classics under their belt, the reader will inevitably gravitate to material that sparks their emotions: if horror's your thing, start with Edgar Allan Poe and read straight through to Peter Straub. If you've always been interested in the American Civil War, endless library bookshelves groan with fiction and nonfiction texts for you to peruse at your leisure -- although if you want an exemplary volume in that category, seek out John Keegan's The American Civil War: A Military History.
Most constant readers find a balance between the complex, "deep" stuff (i.e., Nabokov, weighty biographies of famous historical figures) lightened with servings of frothy popular literature and nonfiction.
And the Inevitable Footnote...
A minister of my acquaintance balances open books on the steering wheel while he drives, trusting in a kind and loving universe to spare him from accident while absorbed in a good book (or, often, the good book). This is not recommended. Limit your reading to safe moments.
Adapted from How to Become an Intellectual, a firmly tongue-in-cheek guide to becoming a truly brainy thinker, published by Adams Media in April 2012.