“A dear friend, Allen Estrin, realized one day that his longstanding plans to read through the Hebrew Bible in its entirety would never happen. And so, one morning, he read the first two chapters of the Torah’s first book, Genesis. And then the next morning, he read the next two chapters. And the following morning, another two. The exercise occupied about fifteen minutes a day. Even when he had extra time, he didn’t read additional chapters (in such instances, he would study the two chapters in greater depth), and even when he had little time he forced himself not to read less. He simply made a firm determination never to miss the reading of the two chapters. He continued on his program for approximately 460 days, until he completed the Hebrew Bible in its entirety, from Genesis through the second book of Chronicles.”
Since starting the blog, I’ve undertaken only two acts of bookish discipline comparable to the one described by the rabbi: I reread Shakespeare’s plays in order and the King James Bible. The rest of my reading, except for a few books endured for review, has been driven by unsystematic appetite for pleasure. I’m selfish about books and the way I read them. They lead, I follow. Somewhere recently I encountered a critic who mocked Charles Lamb for acknowledging that “Books think for me,” but let’s extend Lamb’s logic for a moment. Think of all the books you’ve ever read, many now forgotten but at the time each connecting in some subterranean fashion with the one preceding it and the one that followed. Imagine the books as neurons linked by synapses across space and time, a model that permits a book last read forty years ago to spark a thought today. In the aggregate they constitute the Borgesian conceit of a single vast volume. The English neurophysiologist Sir Charles Scott Sherrington coined synapse from the Greek for “to clasp together,” as in hands or the pages of a book.
Just the other day Bill Vallicella wrote: “Old books are sovereign antidotes to the idiocies of the age, both the idiocies of style and those of content.” My thinking precisely, though the sentiment customarily is dismissed as nostalgia or kneejerk antiquarianism. Not so. I’ve never read a book solely because it was old – or new. I’ve read it because it looked interesting, regardless of publication date, or because someone whose judgment I trust recommended it. Let’s face it: Today is a small place and the past is enormous. They wrote a lot more good books then than now.
Over the weekend I reread an old book, Richard III, never a favorite. I returned to the play because a skeleton unearthed in Leicester, near the site of the Battle of Bosworth, was thought to be the crippled monarch’s. Now DNA testing has confirmed the remains, showing evidence of scoliosis and at least ten blunt-force injuries, were Richard’s. Naturally, English journalists contacted a “literary expert” and asked for his reaction. Philip Schwyzer, a professor of renaissance literature at the University of Exeter, announced: “I think Shakespeare was telling us that we are never going to get all the answers.”
Well, that’s a relief. Happy anniversary to all readers of Anecdotal Evidence.