A young reader or would-be reader, feeling intimidated by the surfeit of books and the pressures imposed by critics and other readers, writes to ask where he ought to begin:
“It’s kind of overwhelming. So many books sound like they’re interesting that I end up feeling kind of paralyzed. I start a book and don’t finish it and then I pick up another one and the same thing happens. I’m talking about good books that are supposed to be important, that all educated people read.”
He goes on to ask for a list of titles, but advice is a dangerous business that puts giver and receiver in jeopardy. I have only my idiosyncratic experience with reading to offer, and it may be of no use to others. I’m constitutionally incapable of creating or following reading lists and crackpot systems of self-improvement. Truly, I don’t care what other people read, though I assume most ambitious common readers will eventually get around to reading many of the same books. Emerson puts it like this in his journal (quoted by Robert D. Richardson in First We Read, Then We Write):
“If a man reads a book because it interests him and reads in all directions for the same reason, his reading is pure and interests me. No matter where you begin, read anything for five hours a day and you will soon be knowing.”
I quibble with the “knowing” part but otherwise Emerson’s observations are sound, especially reading “in all directions.” That’s something my brother and I started when we were young. Pick any book that attracts you and learn to trust such intuitions. Read attentively, perhaps with a pencil in hand. Note the books and writers its author alludes to. See what use he makes of them, and the ones that interest you, pursue. You can’t start in the wrong place. I’m certain there no wrong books, at least to begin with. Pick up Tristram Shandy, for instance, which has the advantage of being funny. Note some of Sterne’s sources – Rabelais, Burton, Locke – and you’re already on your way to a respectable education. Then follow his literary descendents – Joyce, Beckett, Flann O’Brien – and that should keep you laughing.
This is the important thing – laughing, working hard and otherwise enjoying yourself. As a reader, you have no one to please but yourself. Critics are just readers with pretensions. Some of them are reliable but learn to follow your interests and rely on your first-hand experience with a given text. The best reading is motivated by the selfish pursuit of literary pleasure, and the supply of such pleasure, which I once described as “That Other Internet,” is bottomless:
“The late Guy Davenport believed every book was created by its author, often unknowingly, as a response, one half of a virtual dialogue, sometimes disguised, to an already existing book. If we accept this highly ecological premise, and I do, then every book is linked inevitably to every other book in a vast Borgesian weave of overt and occult connections.”