We bridle at “classic,” a marketing term used by people who’ve have never read one. The public library branch nearest our house shelves Atlas Shrugged, To Kill a Mockingbird and Slaughterhouse-Five in “Classics.” What William Giraldi means is a book of lasting worth, one that sustains both individual readers and their culture. Tested by time, classics are kept alive not by teachers or critics but by the dwindling ranks of uncommon common readers, an exclusive, self-identifying fraternity. Elsewhere in “The Writer as Reader: Melville and his Marginalia,” Giraldi calls them “golden books,” with an echo of the volumes we prized as children. When his essay appeared last summer I sent a link to Helen Pinkerton, the poet and Melville scholar, who said Melville’s notations “reveal[ed] his deep commitment to (and rivalry with) his literary predecessors. Many are the hours that I spent tracking Melville's difficult handwriting in those sources that were available in early studies on his work. He was, indeed, an enthusiastic reader.”
Melville, Giraldi says, was a writer “who kneels at the altar of literature not only for wisdom, sustenance, and emotional enlargement, but with the crucial intent of filching fire from the gods.” To gauge the breadth of Melville’s reading, go to his page at LibraryThing and follow the link to a catalog of his reconstructed personal library. After his death in 1891, Melville’s collection was dispersed among relatives, friends and book dealers. Of the original one thousand or so volumes, fewer than three hundred have been located by scholars. Go here to see a recent acquisition, The Sonnets of Europe: A Volume of Translations.
Giraldi is unable to imagine a worthwhile writer who doesn’t read. A novelist, he says, will “spend decades training herself in canonical literature.” Even Hemingway, whose books are not notably bookish, was an omnivore of printed matter. Writers who don’t read are like the residents of Flatland, dwelling in two dimensions. Books spawn books. Guy Davenport was convinced every book, consciously or otherwise, was a reaction to some other book. Giraldi asks:
“How can a nonreader imagine himself an author, the creator of an artifact that he himself admittedly would have no interest in? Can you fathom an architect who's not fond of impressive buildings, or a violinist who has never listened to music? The erroneous assumption among the multitude is that writing doesn't demand specialized skills.”
This compliments something Helen Pinkerton wrote in her email: “In my teaching days, whenever I taught a course in the writing of poetry (or gave individual advice) I often used the analogy of the hard training for ballet or musical performance to urge the student to work hard to master the techniques of traditional verse, if they hoped to write good poetry.”
[A reader responds to Thursday's post: “Melville is the antipodes of Emerson and Whitman, and the rest of the happy choristers. Sure, you’re right: Emerson and Whitman are more palatable. As Jeffers says, `They flatter the human race.’ They also lie. I find I can’t read Emerson or Whitman any more. Melville, however, sees with a different and, to me, more acute vision. He believes in the existence of evil, (`God who make shark one dam injun.’) and he knows, also, that one of the best ways to delay the plunge into chaos is to purge oneself of this notion of moral progress and cling sedulously to the old wisdoms. It seems to me we threw Apollo’s bust into Mammon’s kiln some years ago.”]