Monday, January 06, 2014

`That They May Not Be Detected in Ignorance'

“...this is a book that I love for its content as well as its form.” Of how many books can we say this with full conviction? I mean at 3 a.m. in the sovereignty of our conscience, without fear of censure or approval? So much that we say aloud or publish for public consumption is mere posturing, striving after attention and and admiration. How many books do we truly love? How many of them are worthy of our love? How many do we claim to love in the knowledge that such a declaration will win us the blessing of self-appointed tastemakers? Every day online, one reads such sycophantic displays. 

Several weeks ago, a reader posted a list of what he purported were his favorite books. All but one is fiction and all have been officially sanctioned with an avant-garde seal of approval. I’ve read most of the titles, though not recently. One of them, William Gaddis’ J.R., I read when it was first published in 1975 and again in 1990, as I was preparing to interview Gaddis, and I can certify, after two attentive readings, that the novel is unreadable. 

The author of the quotation at the top is Theodore Dalrymple and the object of his love is Dr. Johnson’s Lives of the English Poets. Both Johnson and Dalrymple possess acute diagnostic skills for rooting out human vanity. Johnson writes in The Adventurer#137: 

Some read that they may embellish their conversation, or shine in dispute; some that they may not be detected in ignorance, or want the reputation of literary accomplishments: but the most general and prevalent reason of study is the impossibility of finding another amusement equally cheap or constant, equally independent on the hour or the weather.”

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