Tuesday, March 10, 2009

`An Old, Tried, and Valued Friend'

“If we strictly follow Hazlitt's advice as you have included it, then how do we ever get around to reading anything so that something serves as the antecedent to which we eagerly return?”

There’s only one way to answer R.T. Davis’ question, posed in a comment to my post on Monday: We don’t. Reading is at least as idiosyncratic as writing. Some read deeply and over time in a single genre or form; some only at the beach. Some begin as hunter-gatherers and remain so, reading strictly for sustenance. I started as an omnivore and as decades passed found my palate grew more discriminating. I lost my taste for literary fast food – say, science fiction and anything by Doris Lessing, especially her science fiction – and sought both nutrition and pleasure (for some readers, a contradiction in terms).

My book-diet has left me strong and healthy, with a few nagging deficiencies among some of the vitamins and minerals – Chinese literature, for instance, and Scandinavian. A return to Coleridge or Chekhov is a painless booster shot. A long habit of reading furnishes one’s imaginative, intellectual and moral lives. One always senses the ghostly presence of book, even when not reading or in their company. If you don’t read with some dedication when young, you’ll probably never know the mellow bliss of rereading (for some readers, again, a contradiction in terms). Hazlitt begins his essay like this:

“I hate to read new books. There are twenty or thirty volumes that I have read over and over again, and these are the only ones that I have any desire ever to read at all.”

Let’s make allowances for provocation – Hazlitt recognized a good lead when he saw one – but there’s truth here. I’ve never counted but I move with regularity, like Kant in Königsberg, within a small radius -- though surely more than 30 titles. And the books I most look forward to reading are ones I’ve already read, sometimes more than once – A Dance to the Music of Time, for instance. I’m not philosophically opposed to new books. Rather, I’m jealous of my reading time and don’t want to squander it on books whose only likely virtue is a recent copyright. Most of the literary blogosphere is lost on me because its attention usually is focused on the recently or soon-to-be published. There are new books I eagerly await – in particular Zbigniew Herbert’s Collected Prose, scheduled for publication next year by Ecco. But even Herbert, dead almost 11 years is, as Hazlitt says, “an old, tried, and valued friend.”

As to “the `superior’ judgment of the reader (yours truly) who teaches literature” mentioned by Davis: I would sooner ask my dentist for a book recommendation than most college professors. Leave the last word to Hazlitt:

“To have lived in the cultivation of an intimacy with such works, and to have familiarly relished such names, is not to have lived quite in vain.”

2 comments:

R. T. Davis said...

Please understand that the phrase "'superior' judgment of the reader (yours truly) who teaches literature" was offered as an ironic tongue-in-cheek comment on the misguided perspectives of some who wrongly view literature teachers (as well as reviewers, critics, and bloggers) as the source of wisdom with respect to books and reading. In fact, readers who defer to the judgments of others (including people in the aforementioned categories) do so at their own peril. Each reader must seek out his or her own interests and passions. All of that underscores the dilemma involved in coming up with an answer to anyone who asks for reading advice. I like Hazlitt (one of the more perceptive critics in history), but I still wrestle with my acquaintance's request for "one book." I rather thought the blogosphere (if that is the correct word for this environment) would have all sorts of good (and not so good) suggestions. Ah, well. Time will tell. As for myself, I must return to THE CHERRY ORCHARD (for one class) and OEDIPUS THE KING (for another class), and in both of those I will once again find limitless pleasures and provocations.

R. T. Davis said...

Let me say this in a different way (though I think I attempted a previous response that may have been lost in the ethernet when I probably hit the wrong key on the computer keyboard): Please understand that I meant to convey a tongue-in-cheek irony by using the phrase "the 'superior' judgment of the reader [yours truly] who teaches literature." My bemused consternation with my acquaintance's request for advice about "one book" to read is imbedded in that intended irony. The pitfalls are many when any reader defers his or her judgment to someone else (including teacher, reviewer, critics, blogger, or even friend). My posting of the acquaintance's request and my dilemma (as someone whose humility and common sense urges me to further distance myself from any claim to "superior" judgment) was intended to provoke other bloggers into a discussion about the ways in which readers will so often defer to others on matters of reading tastes, preferences, and judgment. Witness the proliferation and popularity of recommended reading lists as one piece of evidence. Nevertheless, the nagging and (as of yet) unanswered question keeps circling back into the conversation: When someone asks for a recommendation about what to read, what would you answer?