“Fifty years ago . . .”
That year I turned fourteen, as my youngest son did on Tuesday. I was reading indiscriminately in that uncharted no-man’s-land between boyhood and what passes for young American manhood. Tolkien and Kafka, Dickens and Bellow, Shakespeare and Roger Tory Peterson. I was an omnivore, without critical standards, without a reading “mentor,” Hoovering the literary landscape. If I started reading a book, I had to finish it – an obsessive tic I overcame many years later. I had only recently shed science fiction and Edgar Rice Burroughs. I was learning that a quality shared by all bad books, no matter how highly touted, is tedium. Good books give pleasure. Those are slippery concepts, I know, but dedicated readers learn what they mean and aren't interested in laying down the law for others. One of my all-time favorite books, Ronald Knox’s Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion, will bore the tears out of most readers, which is precisely what James Baldwin’s novels do to me.
“. . . we opened books not just to learn about the content of a writer’s mind but to hear the right words in the right order telling us things we sensed to be true.”
Our author proposes three reasons why we read, which, when combined, come close to defining that elusive thing, the good book: 1.) The writer has something worthwhile and interesting to say. 2.) He deploys words artfully. (Hear the echo of Jonathan Swift: “Proper words in proper places make the true definition of style.”) 3.) He tells the truth. He’s not just not lying. His truth can be tested against our own experience.
“To read Donne, Herrick, Keats. Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Fitzgerald, Proust, James, and Joyce was like hearing Miles or Louis on the horn or Art Tatum or Bill Evans on the keyboard.”
I would add Errol Garner. Otherwise, the comparison is precise. I’m more articulate about books than music, but the feeling of exaltation and gratitude is nearly identical.
“By God, back then we listened when we read, and if on occasion our ears needed readjustment, we read the same words again and again until we heard what we were supposed to hear.”
Writers and readers collaborate. A new word, an old word newly deployed, a subtle brushstroke of irony, a seductive rhythm, an intriguing metaphor, an allusion recognized – literary libertines lives for such things. The passage quoted incrementally above is from page xii of Arthur Krystal’s This Thing We Call Literature (Oxford University Press, 2016). He closes his “Author’s Note” with these words:
“So it comes down, as it must, to one reader reading, one person who understands that he or she, while alone, is still part of a select society, a gallery of like-minded readers who, though they may disagree about this or that book, know that literature matters in a way that life matters. Such readers, I believe, still exist. I wish them well. I wish them literature. And I wish them solitude.”