My readers are generous with their reading. An Australian sent me portions of a 1996 Boyer Lecture by Pierre Ryckmans, better known as the Belgian-born sinologist Simon Leys, author of the still revolutionary Chinese Shadows (1976). Coincidentally, I thought of Leys earlier in the week while speaking to the office manager of an elementary school where I worked. She was 50-ish and brusque in manner and wore a silk blouse printed with the plump visage of Mao Zedong.
Ryckmans’ thesis is that “great readings occupy a place no less significant than actual happenings.” Reading is no departure from life but a vital part of being alive, as real as school, family and work. Seasoned readers know this. Their mental and emotional lives are vast and amply populated, not stunted as conventional wisdom about “bookworms” has it. Ryckmans writes:
“...a long and adventurous journey through strange lands which you undertook in a certain year may in retrospect appear no less memorable than your first exploration of A la recherche du temps perdu, or again you might realise that your encounter with Anna Karenina or with Julien Sorrell [sic] proved more momentous than meeting most of your past acquaintances.”
This leads Ryckmans to conclude that a “true lover of literature only reads the books he loves.” He distinguishes such readers (who are “very rare indeed”) from literary scholars because a “scholar must read all the books that are relevant to his research however mediocre, dreary and boring.” This is dubious as a blanket statement though certainly true of cloistered English professors. Ryckmans quotes the Polish novelist-essayist Kazimierz Brandys, author of The Warsaw Diary: 1978-1981:
“I am now teaching Polish literature at Columbia University. I have some twenty students. My objective is to make them understand that they are in front of a man who is in total despair; a man who since he was a child always hated all analysis of literary works but who now needs to analyse literary works in order to earn a living. What an absurd task it is to teach people how to understand the work of literature. I have never read any book with the purpose of understanding it. To read and simultaneously to explain is as inconceivable for me as it would be to complete the act of love with a medical examination. I was not devouring books, books were swallowing me. They spoke to me about life and death, they spoke to me about myself, whereas I myself never have anything to say about them. I knew a student from Yale; one day as he saw Faulkner in front of a bookshop on a corner in Fifth Avenue, he had the impulse to go down on his knees and to kiss his hand. To my mind, such a gesture is exemplary. It is the only suitable attitude towards literature.”
I read this not as an ironclad stricture but an excellent antidote to reductive analysis. On Wednesday I overheard a high-school teacher repeatedly tell a student that Lady Macbeth’s hand washing was “a symbol of her guilt.” There was no mention of the play’s language, which Samuel Johnson said “ought to bestow immortality on the author, though all his other productions had been lost.” She treated Macbeth like a locked door to be opened with a key and WD40. Another teacher spoke to me of her frustration teaching Lord of the Flies: “I tell them it’s all about a Hobbesian universe, but do they listen?” Would you? At least one of us, I concluded, had gone quite mad. To reiterate Brandys:
“What an absurd task it is to teach people how to understand the work of literature.”