Wednesday, September 04, 2013

`Subtle Poison Instilled Into My Youthful Mind'

The only approach to books worse than not reading them is telling others to read them for their own good, as though they were vitamins between covers. Tell me a volume builds character, that’s it’s wholesome and edifying, and I won’t touch it. Recently a reader strongly recommended a Deepak Chopra title, that it would be a “nice change of pace” and “do me good.” No offense, but please stuff it, dear reader, and don’t presume to know what’s good for me. Life is too short for ill-written happy talk. 

The sentiment is not new. The proprietor of the Neglected Books Page devoted a post to the forgotten American essayist Agnes Repplier (1855-1950), and I borrowed two of her books from the library – the blandly titled Points of View (1899) and the equally bland Counter-Currents (1916). Collected in the former is “Books that Have Hindered Me,” which begins: 

“So many grateful and impetuous spirits have recently come forward to tell an approving world how they have been befitted by their early reading, and by their wisely chosen favorites in literature, that the trustful listener begins to think, against his own rueful experience, that all books must be pleasant and profitable companions.” 

When politicians and market-approved writers issue lists of favorite or most-influential books, we don’t believe a word of it. When Hillary Clinton names Little Women and says, “Like many women of my generation who read this novel growing up, I really felt like I lived in Jo’s family. This book was one of the first literary explorations of how women balance the demands of their daily lives, from raising families to pursuing outside goals. The book was written more than a century ago, but its message resonates today,” we’re left with the certainty that she has never read Alcott’s book, or read it only at the command of the DNC playbook. Her husband names Marcus Aurelius (who wrote in Book VII of the Meditations: “Be thou erect, or be made erect.”) 

Repplier’s contrariness is bracing. When others praise their early primers in spelling and grammar, she counters, “I learned my letters, at the cost of infinite tribulation, out of a horrible little book called `Reading Without Tears,’ which I trust has been banished from all Christian nurseries.” My early reading was different, the product of largely benign neglect. I remember the tedium of Dick-and-Jane, but my family was not bookish and my parents were not superstitious about reading. I read, without guidance, whatever interested me, a regimen I adopted for life. My bent was definitely toward non-fiction, so I consumed science books (field guides) and history (with an emphasis on biography). Repplier says she traces her “moral downfall” to the Rousseau-esque fantasy Sandford and Merton. Repplier must have been wonderful, un-Emersonian company, a woman after my own heart: 

“I do not now believe that men are born equal; I do not love universal suffrage; I mistrust all popular agitators, all intrusive legislation, all philanthropic fads, all friends of the people and benefactors of their race. I cannot even sympathize with the noble theory that every man and woman should do their share of the world’s work; I would gladly shirk my own if I could. And this lamentable, unworthy view of life and its responsibilities is due to the subtle poison instilled into my youthful mind by the too strenuous counter-teaching of Sandford and Merton.” 

Repplier is bold enough to regret her too-early encounter with a certified “classic,” Milton’s "Areopagitica." Its paragraphs, she says, are “weighted with mighty sentences, cumbrous, involved, majestic, and, so far as my narrow comprehension went, almost unintelligible.” It gets even better: 

“The liberty of the press was, to my American notions, so much a matter of course, that the only way I could account for the continued withholding of so commonplace a privilege was by supposing that some unwary members of Parliament read the `Areopagitica,’ and were forthwith hardened into tyranny forever.”

Finally, she takes on what is surely the ur-Good-For-You book in American literature, a book so obstinately unreadable it must be good – Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It’s the idealization of enslaved blacks, the moral and aesthetic fraudulence of Stowe’s novel, that irks Repplier. Uncle Tom, she writes, is an unbelievable model of “all known chivalry and virtue”: 

“It was but too apparent, even to my immature mind, that the negroes whom I knew, or knew about, were very little better than white people; that they shared in all the manifold failings of humanity, and were not marked by any higher intelligence than their Caucasian neighbors.”

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