Sunday, December 16, 2012

`I Know What I Have to Expect'

A handy measure of my disaffection with what passes for literary culture in the United States is “Twelve Months of Reading,” a year-end poll of the books fifty Americans read in 2012. The Wall Street Journal asked politicians, actors and authors to list the recently published volumes they enjoyed. The most winning response is Joseph Epstein’s: “On the perhaps shaky assumption that I shall live forever, I am never in a hurry to read the current year's books, no matter what the year.” My thinking goes something like this: With millennia of good books already published, some of which I haven’t yet read, why take a chance on a book with the single dubious distinction of newness? I’ve read almost none of the books mentioned by the poll’s participants, and don’t in the slightest feel deprived. 

Most of the best books I read this year I was reading for at least the second time. Among them: Tristram Shandy, Max Beerbohm’s And Even Now, the essays and letters of Johnson and Lamb, the stories of Bellow and Cheever, among others. Judging from most of the books mentioned in the Wall Street Journal poll, I made the right decisions. Little sounds interesting, though I do want to read Oliver Sacks’ Hallucinations and   Artemis Cooper’s Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure.  I don’t need to know anything more about Lyndon Johnson. What books published in 2012 did I read and enjoy? In no particular order: 

Olives, A.E. Stallings.

What Happened to Sophie Wilder, Christopher Beha.

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956, Anne Applebaum.

Bewilderment, David Ferry.

When I Was a Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson.

 The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia, Roger Kimball.

John Keats: A New Life, Nicholas Roe. 

And best of all, Essays in Biography by Joseph Epstein, an admirer of William Hazlitt, who writes in On Reading Old Books”: 

“When I take up a work that I have read before (the oftener the better) I know what I have to expect. The satisfaction is not lessened by being anticipated. When the entertainment is altogether new, I sit down to it as I should to a strange dish, -- turn and pick out a bit here and there, and am in doubt what to think of the composition.”


Anonymous said...

Today is Beethoven's birthday, and the local radio station has been playing his music all day. I have heard all of it before, many, many times. Yet the music still delights me with its freshness, its emotion, its art.

Why is it that the old--the tried and true--continues to inform, to inspire and to infuse one with joy? As with music, books that are written by old masters continue to bring me pleasure each time I read or reread them. It's not that I am opposed to the new, but often enough, the new music and the new art and the new books leave me cold.


Helen Pinkerton said...


I, too, read the Wall Street Journal's list of books in 2012 and was appalled by most of the choices. To conclude the year with some sanity remaining I reread for about the fifth time Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence. LIke a good poem it bears repeating, or should I say reliving.