David Myers borrows from Tim Davis the notion of “reading skeletons,” defined by Myers as “the books and writers you will never confess to: those that cause, not merely embarrassment, but a deep moan of shame.” Not since late adolescence have I wasted much time on unmitigated, shame-inducing trash. Science fiction, Tolkien, pulp novels of any genre, Margaret Mitchell, Edgar Rice Burroughs – all target children of all ages, and I read them as a child. Discerningly ambitious readers begin as omnivores, hungrier than they are discriminating. Reading such stuff as kids gives them immunity against it as adults. It can't satisfy a grownup sensibility.
Myers mentions The Day of the Jackal, a Frederick Forsyth novel I’ve never read (I’m not sure I’ve ever read a “thriller,” unless Chandler and Westlake count) though I periodically watch the Fred Zinneman film version (1973), mostly for Michael Lonsdale’s Inspector Lebel and Cyril Cusack’s gunsmith. No one will mistake it for Tokyo Story, but trash in film form, though emetic as a book, sometimes proves palatable.
Myers cites the shame he feels for having once read a novel by Tom Robbins – probably the writer I have never read who has most often been urged upon me by people who know nothing about literature. He also mentions Robert Pirsig’s pretentious little bestseller. It was mildly readable at the time – 1974? – but even then I knew it was, in effect, a one-night stand. There’s no shame in that. We must read junk to recognize it and flush it from our systems, like a toxin that carries its own enema.
A good reader possesses intestinal fortitude and little capacity for regret. I often read books that will never be mistaken for literature – in recent weeks, a biography of Charles Addams, histories of Chinese calligraphy (my 9-year-old’s current enthusiasm) and Tin Pan Alley, a field guide to butterflies of the Pacific Northwest. I go to them not for the pleasures Nabokov and Samuel Johnson offer – elegance and incisiveness of language and thought -- but for the pleasure of new information.
The Welsh poet-priest R.S. Thomas was a deeply self-centered, unpleasant fellow though one of the last century’s great poets, as Byron Roger’s The Man Who Went Into the West: The Life of R.S. Thomas confirms. Rogers quotes the poet’s son, Gwydion Thomas, as saying:
“Why didn’t he read more? He had this extraordinary Stalinist approach, there were all these books he just wouldn’t read. And if something got a review, that ruled it out altogether. Yet he’d trawl Pwllheli public library looking for things to read, and his choices were very odd, books about penguins and whales. I used to drop little bundles of books outside his room, then he’d read them, and when I went back to university my mother would say she’d found him crawling up the stairs to fish books out of my room. I gave him the mediaeval history Montaillou, he was very fond of that.”
Filial resentment aside, Thomas’ account of his father’s reading habits is, on balance, largely admirable. Penguins and whales are among the most fashionable and least interesting species, but I too often read about fauna. “Stalinist” is harsh and Thomas is not specific about titles and authors, but all of us carry around conscious and unconscious lists of books we wouldn’t read (or reread) on a bet. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s book is superb.