Tuesday, June 24, 2014

`One Human Being's Sojourn on Earth'

I give books to people I like. Don’t mistake this for generosity. First I gauge their tastes and the importance of books in their lives. They needn’t be obsessives but I’m on the lookout for people not in search of a “good read” (the OED says otherwise, but read is not a noun in my book). I reduce the prerequisites for a gift book to two: 1.) I’ve read it, perhaps several times, and it remains important to me. It found a home in my sensibility. 2.) The recipient is ready to receive such a book. I haven’t yet met a twelve-year-old ready for Pascal’s Pensées. In recent months I’ve given readers Ronald Knox’s Enthusiasm, a paperback collection of Thomas Wyatt’s poems, Yvor Winters’ In Defense of Reason, Evelyn Waugh’s Put Out More Flags and A.J. Liebling’s The Sweet Science. All you can conclude from this is that I know some interesting people. 

When I say my motive is not generosity, I mean it’s profoundly selfish. The more people who read good books, the more interesting conversations I’m likely to have and the less likely I am to hear people talking about Dan Brown, Malcolm Gladwell and Gabriel Josipovici. The only criticism that really matters is one reader talking intently to another. I think of the Irish poet Bernard O'Donoghue’s “Going without Saying” (Gunpowder, 1995): 

“It is a great pity we don’t know
When the dead are going to die
So that, over a last companionable
Drink, we could tell them
How much we liked them. 

“Happy the man who, dying, can
Place his hand on his heart and say:
`At least I didn’t neglect to tell
The thrush how beautifully she sings.’” 

I try to emulate O’Donoghue’s dying man. Tell someone how important a book has been to you. At least tell them how beautifully the writer sings. I’m no utopian. Books don’t make people good. Lots of terrible and mediocre people read (and write). Books aren’t medicine. They fix nothing. Good books ask little and repay us with enjoyment and endurance.  In the March issue of Harper’s, Arthur Krystal takes on the seemingly exhausted subject of the canon in “What is Literature?”  He writes, “The canon may be gone, but the idea of the canon persists,” and that’s exactly the point. Seasoned readers, committed readers know first-hand the power of books. Krystal is so audacious as to answer the question posed by his title: 

“That’s what literature is about, isn’t it? — a record of one human being’s sojourn on earth, proffered in verse or prose that artfully weaves together knowledge of the past with a heightened awareness of the present in ever new verbal configurations. The rest isn’t silence, but it isn’t literature either.”

1 comment:

Marly Youmans said...

Oh, I like this--I would like to live in a little village of people who read interesting books and think interesting thoughts, and who put the library right on the village green.