In the bookish precincts of the blogosphere I detect a growing provincialism, a nativist impulse to draw boundaries around genres, or historic periods, or demographically defined groups, and defend or attack them like redoubts of virtue or vice. There’s nothing new about this. Self-righteousness and its allies, ignorance and grievance, drive the online world and much of the rest of the human realm. What’s new is the pleasure-denying vehemence, the willingness of some to impose it on others (i.e., de facto censorship, often self-imposed) and the sheer amount of noise being generated. One personal gauge of such things is the growing volume of messages I receive from people disturbed by books they haven’t read – surely a reliable litmus test for some mutated species of fascism or mental illness. When reading stops being enjoyable, when books are little more than membership cards for one of Orwell’s “smelly little orthodoxies,” literature wilts.
Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces (2002) is a collection of book reviews written for the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborczaby by the late poet Wisława Szymborska. The books she selects are “unappreciated, undiscussed, unrecommended.” Purposely she chooses unfashionable books ignored by other reviewers. Szymborska even rejects the job description “reviewer” and says, instead, “basically I am and wish to remain a reader, an amateur, and a fan, unburdened by the weight of ceaseless evaluation.” Szymborska gives us a reader’s Declaration of Independence:
“Homo Ludens [man the player] with a book is free. At least as free as he’s capable of being. He himself makes up the rules of the game, which are subject only to his own curiosity. He’s permitted to read intelligent books, from which he will benefit, as well as stupid ones, from which he may also learn something. He can stop before finishing one book, if he wishes, while starting another at the end and working his way back to the beginning. He may laugh in the wrong places or stop short at words that he’ll keep for a lifetime. And, finally, he’s free—and no other hobby can promise this—to eavesdrop on Montaigne’s arguments or take a quick dip in the Mesozoic.”
Szymborska’s approach to reviewing is essayistic, informal and defiantly undogmatic. The book at hand is the merest pretext for “a loose sally of the mind,” as Dr. Johnson defined the essay in his Dictionary. Her mention of Montaigne is no coincidence. As a young writer she translated his essays, and in a review titled “Close Calls” she looks at a three-volume translation of them into Polish in 1985. Szymborska suggests we read them with “astonishment”: “There’s nothing easier, after all, than finding a thousand disloyalties in a writer who thinks for himself.”