Nov 25 2017

The Trouble with Reading Too Many Good Books

bookshelf

The Trouble with Reading Too Many Good Books

Twenty-four years ago, Harold Bloom said we should read only canonical works, only the best of the best:

Who reads must choose, since there is literally not enough time to read everything, even if one does nothing but read….

Reviewing bad books, W. H. Auden once remarked, is bad for the character. Like all gifted moralists, Auden idealized despite himself, and he should have survived into the present age, wherein the new commissars tell us that reading good books is bad for the character, which I think is probably true. Reading the very best writers–let us say Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy–is not going to make us better citizens. Art is perfectly useless, according to the sublime Oscar Wilde, who was right about everything. He also told us that all bad poetry is sincere….

Reading deeply in the Canon will not make one a better or a worse person, a more useful or more harmful citizen. The mind’s dialogue with itself is not primarily a social reality. All that the Western Canon can bring one is the proper use of one’s own solitude, that solitude whose final form is one’s confrontation with one’s own mortality.

We possess the Canon because we are mortal and also rather belated. There is only so much time, and time must have a stop, while there is more to read than there ever was before…. One ancient test for the canonical remains fiercely valid: unless it demands rereading, the work does not qualify….

Yet we must choose: As there is only so much time, do we reread Elizabeth Bishop or Adrienne Rich? Do I again go in search of lost time with Marcel Proust, or am I to attempt yet another rereading of Alice Walker’s stirring denunciation of all males, black and white? ….

If we were literally immortal, or even if our span were doubled to seven score of years, says, we could give up all argument about canons. But we have an interval only, and then our place knows us no more, and stuffing that interval with bad writing, in the name of whatever social justice, does not seem to me to be the responsibility of the literary critic…. [1]

More recently, Alan Jacobs has suggested we should place some limits even on canonical works:

While I agree with Harold Bloom about many things and am thankful for his long advocacy for the greatest of stories and poems, in these matters I am firmly on the side of Lewis and Chesterton. Read what gives you delight—at least most of the time—and do so without shame. And even if you are that rare sort of person who is delighted chiefly by what some people call Great Books, don’t make them your steady intellectual diet, any more than you would eat at the most elegant of restaurants every day. It would be too much. Great books are great in part because of what they ask of their readers: they are not readily encountered, easily assessed. The poet W. H. Auden once wrote, “When one thinks of the attention that a great poem demands, there is something frivolous about the notion of spending every day with one. Masterpieces should be kept for High Holidays of the Spirit”––for our own personal Christmases and Easters, not for any old Wednesday. [2]

Excess is toxic. Too much of anything is biologically poisonous. One might compare the worldview of the steady reader to the worldview of the career soldier. Take General John J. Pershing (1860-1948) for example:

He liked life at McKinley. With a good Officers’ Club and a large contingent of officers, it furnished a social world all its own. Pershing made it a point, however, to avoid concentrating on Army friendships. “We Army people tend to stick together too much and become clannish,” he said. “It’s good to know civilians. It helps them appreciate what the Army is like and it’s good for us to know what they’re like.” [3]

It was Pershing’s ability to get outside his own habitual worldview as a career soldier and actively intermingle with civilian life and culture that led him to further successes. At one point, when he was stationed in the Philippines:

Pershing was thunderstruck. To his knowledge, this was unprecedented. He had never heard of a white man being so honored by Moros [as Pershing had]. Solemnly he thanked Sajiduciman. In a concluding ceremony, both men placed their hands on the Koran and swore allegiance to the United States. [4]

NOTES

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[1] Bloom, Harold, The Western Canon: the Books and School of the Ages, (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace, 1994) 15–16, 30–32.

[2] Jacobs, Alan, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, (New York, NY: Oxford UP, 2011) 23.

[3] Smythe, Donald, Guerrilla Warrior: the Early Life of John J. Pershing, (New York, NY: Scribner’s Sons, 1973) 135.

[4] Smythe, Guerrilla Warrior: the Early Life of John J. Pershing 92.