Contra the fulsome lip service paid to “reading the classics,” here is the always pungent C.H. Sisson:
“An actual preference for the best literature is probably not so common, nor so teachable, as is sometimes alleged, but if one is so constituted as to feel such a preference vividly, one is saved the trouble of reading an awful lot of books. One moves habitually in distinguished company – company distinguished for what it is and not for what is said about it. The company is, naturally, overwhelmingly of the dead, as literature has been going on for a long time. It should not all be English-speaking, for literature is a wide republic . . .”
Sisson covers much ground in four sentences. The best books spoil us. Distinguished company is daunting until its presence distinguishes us. We aspire to be worthy of the best books we read. The present is cramped, the past is spacious and the dead aren’t really dead. It boils down to arithmetic. Most of what is written in any given year is rubbish but “literature has been going on for a long time.” Sisson suggests we think of the preceding millennia as a global open-source library.
“My reading has been an indulgence, not a corvée. For most of my life there has been enough I had to know, without burdening my leisure with any programmatic reading, which is not to say that one piece of reading has not often suggested another, nor that there has not at all times been an involuntary connection between what I read and what I wrote.”
All the best reading is an indulgence, freely chosen, a gratifying labor and its own reward. Corvée is cunning: “a day’s work of unpaid labour due by a vassal to his feudal lord” (OED). No vassals, no lords, only free men and women (“literature is a wide republic”). Just as the most precious of all rights is the right to be left alone, there are no obligations when it comes to books. Ignore most of the critics and publishers’ shills. After all, whose opinion today is worthy of our attention? My reading life has been ruled by what I think of as serendipitous momentum, one book inevitably leading to another, a vast internet in which the only hardware sits on the shelves, free for the taking. The quoted passages above are from the preface to Sisson’s essay collection In Two Minds: Guesses at Other Writers (Carcanet, 1990). Near its conclusion he writes:
“The most that is intended is that these essays might suggest, to a reader here and there, that there should be some care for the literature of the past, outside the precincts of academia, and some attempt to look at the products of our own time in the light of the still readable work of the past—a procedure which can only result in the rejection of all but a tiny fraction of the current morbidly large output of verse, fiction and criticism.”