Tuesday, March 29, 2016

`Deep-Versed in Books and Shallow in Himself'

The words might be used with justice against such grotesquely prolific writers as Joyce Carol Oates: “And further, by these, my sonne, be admonished: of making many bookes there is no end, and much studie is a wearinesse of the flesh.” That’s the King James Version of Ecclesiastes 12:12. The sentence has always seemed unduly despairing, especially the final phrase, and not the sort of thing you want to tell a young person with a book in one hand and a smartphone in the other. Milton clarifies things in Paradise Regained (Book Four, lines 321-330) by redirecting the verse at phony scholars and bookish twits, and gives the lie to those who would deny him a sense of humor:

“However, many books,    
Wise men have said, are wearisome; who reads          
Incessantly, and to his reading brings not        
A spirit and judgment equal or superior,          
(And what he brings what needs he elsewhere seek?)
Uncertain and unsettled still remains,  
Deep-versed in books and shallow in himself, 
Crude or intoxicate, collecting toys        
And trifles for choice matters, worth a sponge,
As children gathering pebbles on the shore.”

Robert Alter revises my thinking. In his translation of The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes (W.W. Norton & Co., 2010), here is his rendering of the Hebrew verse: “And more than these, my son, beware: of making books there is no end, and much chatter is a weariness of the flesh.” First, Alter tells us in a footnote that scholars have concluded lines nine through fourteen of the twelfth chapter of Qohelet (he prefers the Hebrew title) are “an epilogue added by the editor, with the aim of bringing Qohelet’s radical vision in line with more conventional piety.” Qohelet, Alter says, “was not merely a sage but, one might say, a lecturing and publishing sage, one who gave public instruction and edited and formulated maxims.” About his revision of “studie” to “chatter,” Alter writes:

“The Hebrew lahag refers either to speech or to study, and the parallelism with making many books has encouraged many interpreters to opt for study. But the author of the epilogue, at once praising Qohelet and interposing a certain distance from him, wants to warn readers that all this writing, including Qohelet’s, may simply exhaust one perhaps distract one from the simple duties of piety, so the sense of `chatter’ has some plausibility. This is the regular meaning of lahag in later Hebrew.” 

Every writer’s nightmare: an editor who inserts his own thoughts into the text and, in effect, advises readers not to read the book they hold in their hands.

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