“The litany of great books can, of course, come across as mere litany. Books that charm us in one season, books that shake us to the core in another, can turn blank and empty if we approach them in a dull spirit. Reading them for the sake of duty or out of pedantry is certain to miss the point. The best books are best because of their quirky individuality, not because they are part of a club of `great’ books.”
“Great books” is a category without meaning, akin to “classic rock.” It smacks of marketing and focus groups. True, many of the books commonly stamped with that label are the ones we read to understand the culture we have inherited, to maintain a living linkage with the past and to enjoy. Our ancestors fairly often knew what they were doing. Among the reasons we read Plutarch is that Shakespeare read him, which is one of the reasons we read Shakespeare.
One must be skeptical of newly published books. They are unknown quantities from a backward and provincial age. They must work hard to prove themselves, and seldom do.
The late D.G. Myers, who regularly reviewed current fiction, shared some good, seemingly contradictory advice: “Read no book before it is ten years old (in order not to be influenced by the buzz).” Here’s my corollary: If a book creates “buzz,” run away as fast as you can.
The author of the passage quoted at the top, Rachel Peterson, writes in “On Reading Old Books”: “But sometimes the most exhilarating departure from normal is to travel to another world. Old books are the ticket.” Of course, Peterson is reformulating something found in an old book, namely Hazlitt’s identically titled essay “On Reading Old Books” (1819). Hazlitt states the matter definitively: “I have more confidence in the dead than the living.”