Guest post: A librarian’s take on Flaubert, Reading, and Life

Gustave_Flaubert “Read in order to live.”—Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880)

Today’s entry is a guest post from Roy See, hopefully the first of many. Despite being a full-time librarian and somewhat of a lit fiend, reading, for him, often has to compete with conflicting priorities and other interests, as he describes below. Visit Roy’s blog at for his quirky take on books, movies, and life in general.

Upcoming: more guest posts by people in various professions sharing their perspectives on reading, literature, or whatever their respective passions. Please get in touch ( if you’re interested to contribute.

“Read in order to live,” Flaubert supposedly said, and if I take him literally, I’ve been steadily “living” less and less for the past fifteen years or so. Does that make me some sort of a literacy zombie?

I confess I am occasionally disturbed that I hardly read these days. This is compounded by the fact that my career choices have always involved reading: teacher, editor, and now, librarian; and to top it all off, I have a proclivity to look around when I’m taking public transport and silently disparage the majority entranced by their mobile gadgets like children by the Pied Piper. So now I’m not only a literacy zombie, I’m also a closet Philistine, a phony, and a hypocrite. I can accept that … but not without qualification.

I read very little these days for a number of reasons. My eyesight is failing: previously I was only severely shortsighted, but now hyperopia and astigmatism have been added to the list. In other words, I not only need reading glasses but if I’m forced to hold my reading material closer to my face (say, about twenty centimeters) on a crowded bus or train (and here in Singapore, you’d be lucky to get standing space), I’ll have a hard time making out words on a page, be it printed or electronic. So, no reading in transit.


When I arrive at the office—be it school, publishing house, or library—there’re no real opportunities for an extended, edifying read. When I get back home, there’s a four-year-old boy who impatiently waits for me to finish dinner so I can assist in his latest Lego project or help him defeat some particularly pesky boss in whatever video game he’s currently absorbed by. We do sometimes get some reading done before bedtime, but since he does not share my inclination towards explorations of existential angst or absurdist hard-boiled thrillers, we generally stick to kids with purple crayons and very hungry caterpillars. Imaginative stuff, yes, but it’s really more for him than for me. So, generally no reading at work or at home either.

On top of all that, I have since my teenage years amassed over a thousand music albums (iTunes says I presently have 1,221 albums with a total playing time of 51.7 days) and almost as many films in the form of DVDs and Blu-rays. I try to listen to my music and watch my movies as much as possible. I also play some guitar and video games, and am currently teaching myself German. I write on occasion (like I’m doing now), and I try to spend as much time as I can spare on household chores and exercise. So, recreationally speaking, not much time for reading either.

You see the problem now? I spend a lot of time on public transit and work, but I can’t read there. I spend my remaining time balancing a variety of activities to ensure a full and meaningful life, so reading can’t rate as a priority. For me, it has become an occasional (guilty?) pleasure. So Flaubert lied: I read less in order to live more.

In recent years, I have achieved a peace of some sort with the fact that I rarely read; I may also have found a way not to make a total liar out of Flaubert—there’re different kinds of “reading.” Losing yourself in a book for hours on end and coming out of it emotionally shaken or spiritually stirred is just one sort of reading. (Be honest: that’s a little too Disneyland, isn’t it?) The most important “reading” we do most of the time on a daily basis is utilitarian, unadorned, and unspectacular. We read the time on our clocks and watches to know if it’s time to get up. We read the labels on our breakfast foods to decide what to eat. We read the weather forecast to know if we should bring an umbrella with us when we get out the door. We read the numbers on the buttons when we get into an elevator. We read news headlines. We “read” the traffic lights and the speed of an oncoming vehicle to know when to cross the road. We “read” the look on our bosses’ faces or perhaps their choice of a tie or a blouse to know if it’s a good time to ask for a raise. We “read” advertisements, signs, people, buildings, animals, animal droppings, tea leaves, markings in the dirt, clouds in the sky, blood spatter, tattoos, and body language. We “read” word choices, punctuation, typefaces, font sizes; we even “read” the spaces—margins, lines—to figure out if publishers actually put some thought into their work.

I’m not sure if Flaubert had intended this liberal, expansive, and inclusive definition of “reading” when he said what he said, but it makes more sense when coupled with the notion of “live.” This might come off as a cheat to those who would hold on to the idealized notion of reading, but it makes life livable. Flaubert is an honest man again, and I am not as big a hypocrite as I sometimes think I am. You can’t get more Disneyland than that.

Credits: Image of Flaubert from Wikipedia and photo of reading glasses courtesy of Roy.


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