In one of Naguib Mahfouz’s gloomier novels, Khan al-Khalili, we meet the sad character of Ahmad ‘Akif, a bachelor living with his family in the eponymous quarter of historic Cairo. Now in his forties, one of the defining events of his life is having had to put an early end to his studies in order to support his family. Over the years, his sense of grievance and thwarted ambition have set, firing an obsession with the pursuit of learning. Desperate to beat a path to fame and glory, first he tries his hand at law, then at science, and finally at literature. Each time he fails miserably to achieve any success. No scientific discoveries that will “transform the horizons of modern science,” elevating him to the ranks of Newton and Einstein. No eminent publications in which his readings of classical Arabic literature—he has read al-Mubarrad, Ibn Qutayba, al-Jahiz, and al-Qali—deliver their fruit and his great intellect shines forth. By the time we meet him, all that’s left of his self-styling as a scholar manqué is a stubborn but desultory reading habit that is far more wide than deep. He’s a dilettante unable to think for himself, having long “relied on books to do the thinking for him.”
There are different things one might focus on in this story, and different lessons one might try to derive from it. From my perspective as an academic writer, I must admit that my attention was drawn to one of the simplest aspects of this unhappy picture, and this is how it presents one possible relation to the act of reading. From his earliest transactions with books, Ahmad can’t content himself with just reading them. The experience of reading is not enough. He feels compelled to do something with it. Books are a means to achieve something. Put differently, the act of reading needs to be productive. And although not all of Ahmad’s notions of achievement or “production” take the same form, in at least one case the logic seems clear. The point of reading books is to produce more of them. The point of reading is to write.
Even if you’re not an academic yourself, you may not find it hard to see why I was especially disposed to focus on this simple aspect—and indeed to feel personally targeted by it. If there’s anything one knows about academics, it’s that they write. Scroll down any faculty page on the sites of major universities and you’ll be dazzled by the snaking publication lists of the longest-serving members. In many contexts today, as it is often said, they can’t afford not to, if they’ve any hope of securing professional advancement. Yet this explanation of why books are written doesn’t provide the whole story. It overlooks the fact that academics often keep on writing even when they no longer feel they strictly have to. The type of writing varies from one field or discipline to the other. In the humanities, much writing takes shape as a reflection on texts. Books are written about books. Much of my own writing, for example, has been a meditation on theological and philosophical texts from different places and times. I’ve written about the Mu’tazilites, about Ibn Taymiyyah, about al-Ghazali; I’ve also written about Schopenhauer and a motley crew of other philosophers. When I read their texts, I read them knowing I will write about them—I read them in order to write. In other words, in some important respects, Ahmad ‘Akif’s relation to reading is my own.
It might be pointed out that, in Ahmad ‘Akif’s case, what makes this relation problematic is not the productive desire per se. It’s the desires, the character flaws, that in turn drive it—the pride, arrogance, and off-the-scale thirst for glory. But this simply begs the question: Why, if not for these reasons, do we write? It’s this question that I want to explore here. Although as phrased this is a question about facts, it hands over to a question of value: Why should we write? What justifies doing so?
In my own writing life, I have long felt that there’s a quandary here I’ve shied away from. Taken in its narrowest form, this is a quandary about what “we” do as academics who write books. But many readers of this publication are not academics. What they likely share instead is a conviction that certain works of the human mind belonging to different cultures and times carry special importance, and that we stand to make a significant gain from engaging with them. In its broadest form, my question is about how we can make that gain. Can we think deeply about these works—can we experience their transformative power fully—without writing about them? Can we avoid the superficial relation to books of Ahmad ‘Akif’s later years unless we keep something of his original productive ambition?
These are big questions, into which I’ll only plant a modest spade. It will be all the more modest given that I won’t try to speak in the name of academics in general and will simply speak for myself. My goal is simply to convey my perception of what writing has done for me, say something that puts this in a broader context, and point to some of the challenges and questions it creates.
Questions about what we gain from the study of literary, philosophical, and other texts have been a familiar fixture of debates about the value of a university education in the humanities. In her recent book The Value of the Humanities, literary scholar Helen Small provides a typology of arguments commonly leveraged to defend this kind of education. These range from arguments that highlight its economic and social utility to ones that focus on its role in bolstering democratic institutions, its contribution to individual and collective happiness, or the intrinsic value of such study for its own sake. Although what’s in question in these debates is the public value of the humanities, many of the arguments map on to the kinds of reasons each of us might give if prompted to explain what benefit, if any, we believe we have derived from such an education.
The argument that would best represent my own reasons sits uneasily in this typology. It is perhaps closest to the argument for happiness, but only if this is understood in a sense similar to the one Aristotle might have given it, where happiness is about realizing a potentiality that we can in hindsight recognize as precious and central to who we are. Not everyone will experience this education in the same way. But my sense is that when this education works best, it will be valued at least in part as a form of experience, a source of new experiences, and a means to self-transformation. All experiences of course change us in different ways and to different degrees. Many of them enrich us—in the minimal sense that we can retrospectively acknowledge some way in which we are better off for having had them. But there are experiences that enrich us more than others, that bring about changes in our perspective and our ways of thinking about ourselves and the world that seem more profound, and that we treasure above the rest.
For me, this is one of them. Looking back at the different kinds of theological and philosophical texts I was exposed to in the course of my extended education, I know I would not be the same person today if I had never had the chance to encounter them and work through their ideas. I would not have been able to think the thoughts I do today if I had never spent some time puzzling through Wittgenstein’s idea of a private language or Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of the will, reflecting on Plato’s conception of human love in the Phaedrus or al-Ghazali’s understanding of divine love in the Revival of the Religious Sciences, and even blinking hard through philosophical discussions of personal identity or possible-worlds modal semantics. I wouldn’t be the same if I had never had the chance to think seriously (which is not to say profoundly) about questions such as the nature of virtue and its relation to happiness, the notion of human nature, the idea of moral luck, the ideal of magnanimity, or the experience of the sublime, just to mention some examples. I definitely would never have discovered the experience that more than any other has shaped my sense of self and of what matters—the experience of wonder. This is the experience that, not to put too fine a point on it, provides one of the few answers I know to the question why life may be worth living. And it is difficult for me to see how I would ever have come to it without the education that the study of philosophical and theological texts afforded me, by cultivating my capacity for a certain kind of critical distance and reflective self-awareness, by making certain kinds of possibilities imaginable to me and certain kinds of concepts thinkable.