Monday, June 09, 2014

`Our Real Teachers Being the Books We Happen to Read'

On Saturday I had lunch with a longtime reader of Anecdotal Evidence, a lawyer from Dallas I had never met in person. He was staying in Houston with a friend he has known since 1971, when they met in college. Five days earlier, the friend had retired as the librarian for a public high school. He spoke, sadly, of “culling.” All of us, to varying degrees, are bookish. The librarian has an interest in Spain and the Spanish Civil War. The lawyer follows Byzantine history. I know little about either subject, but my reader and I share a love of Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell. The former, we agreed, wrote the finest prose of the last century and was an impossible human being. J. is reading Joseph Epstein’s latest collection of essays, A Literary Education (Axios, 2014). In the first piece in the book, “On Being Well-Versed in Literature,” Epstein writes of his literary education: 

“Describing it quickly, I should call it slapdash, wildly uneven, and chiefly autodidactical. But, then, apart from those people trained as professional scholars or scientists, we are all finally autodidacts, making our way on our own as best we can, with our real teachers being the books we happen to read.” 

Over lunch, the three of us would have nodded in agreement. We talked books without sparring, sharing enthusiasms the way some people swap stories about the Carolina Panthers or The Sopranos. I write about books daily but seldom get a chance to talk about them. Partly that’s out of wariness. I know from experience that too much book talk is posturing and showing off, bragging about almost finishing Proust or reading Paul Celan in German. Among the warring bookish tribes, I’m the solitary nomad, forming no alliances, always moving on. Congenial book talk in the right crowd is an oasis of shade and potable water. In addition, I have a horror of boring people with talk of books, and slipping into professorial blather. Most people just don’t care, and that’s fine by me. My friends and I are happy to be common readers in the Johnsonian sense, strictly amateurs, who know what we enjoy and know what smells of writerly or readerly pretensions. My lawyer friend has finished Proust but I failed to ask him about Celan. 

On Sunday, another reader, Mark Marowitz, sent me a link to another writer, Howard Jacobson. In his column last week for the Independent, Jacobson describes the failure of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, and says: “What Wolfe the dandy journalist failed to understand was the element of marvellous irrelevance that the greatest art must always to some degree connive at.” This is shrewd and rarely acknowledged. Billions of human beings have gotten along quite well without Shakespeare or Dante, thank you. I choose not to. Jacobson continues: 

“Which doesn’t mean that writers should eschew the ambition to be universally understood, even if it’s impossible. When Dr Johnson wrote of rejoicing to concur with the common reader he was embracing an ideal – the common reader as philosophically conceived. Such a being might not in actuality exist but it’s writerly good manners to proceed as though he does. Ulysses pushes out the boat, but Finnegans Wake is an act of bad faith.” 

No, in actuality, we exist.

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