The following snippet is from an essay (or probably blog post) that I began some time earlier this year. The essay fell apart two paragraphs after where this blog post ends. There is nothing more pretentious than a didactic essay about the importance of reading good books; so that the name of the blog once more gives me license to publish what would otherwise cause me to blush.

At some point in the early 2000s I read a book titled The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, by Ruth Benedict. This ethnographic work was written out of the experience of fighting and then cooperating with the Japanese during World War II. Since its publication in 1946 it has been variously praised and criticized; although I recall enjoying the book, there is really only one observation that has stayed with me. That was that in Japanese culture, there is an expectation that enjoyment is a skill that must be developed. Enjoyment of, say, a work of literature, would not be the coincidence of the reader’s tastes and the book’s idiosyncrasies. Instead, a reader must cultivate his ability to appreciate fine literature.

This is such an obvious point to me now that it’s embarrassing to recall it as a revelation. I consumed media (television, books, films) in what I believe is a fairly typical way: I read or watched whatever I came across and enjoyed. My taste followed my own interests, uninformed by broader cultural considerations, and without any serious effort at reading for breadth, or attention to history, or intention to improve my mind.

With the passage of ten-plus years, what progress can I report? A few pretentious statements come to mind: my literary judgment has improved; I have read books of higher quality; I believe that my reading has contributed to my formation as a person. And those things are all true, even if they are self-congratulatory. But the real progress I have made is not in what I have read, but how my appetite has been formed.

Six or seven years ago, I put a list of books I wanted to read into a spreadsheet. There were probably twenty titles in it at the time, and most of these were simply titles that had been referenced somewhere and that I wanted to follow up on at some point. (This was done in connection with a discipline I adopted around that time to finish books that I started reading, and to read one personal and one professional book at a time, which I have written about previously.) I’ve read hundreds of books in the interval, and there are now more than 150 titles on my “to read” list. There was a time when such a reading list would have seemed burdensome. But now I am often physically excited by all of the good books that I still have to read. The years have, against all prior inclination, cultivated in me an appreciation of good books.