A friend has been reading Keeping An Eye Open: Essays on Art (2015) by Julian Barnes, and quotes a passage from the introduction:
“. . . there were painters whom you grew out of (like the pre-Raphaelites); painters you grew into to (Chardin); painters towards whom you had life-long, sighing indifference (Greuze); painters you suddenly became aware of after years of unnoticing (Liotard, Hammershøi, Cassatt, Vallotton); painters assuredly great but to whom your response was always a bit negligent (Rubens); and painters who would, whatever age you were, remain persistently, indomitably great (Piero, Rembrandt, Degas).”
Barnes leaves out an essential category: painters one recognizes from the start as mediocrities and con men: Duchamp, Dali, Warhol. The last century has been especially dense with the species. But my friend, as a dedicated reader, has bigger fish to fry: “Don’t you think you and I could say pretty much the same thing about books, those we grew out of, those we grew into, those by so-called great writers we are indifferent to, great writers, and we know they are great, who for some reason fail to fire our interest (all Romantic poets except for Keats), and those great writers whom we read over and over again.”
This is a theme to which the young are denied access. A lifetime of reading can be likened to the motion of tectonic plates, forever shifting, colliding, sinking and erupting. Stand still on “solid” ground and all seems permanent and unchanging. And then suddenly you realize you can no longer stomach Hemingway or some other infatuation. I’m not talking about those readers for whom books are trophies on the mantel, who read Dante once and check him off their life lists like competitive birders. I mean readers who incorporate certain books into their bloodstream, like benign viruses that continue mutating. Some take up permanent residence. Others stake a claim for years, and then leave, and some are quickly eliminated by an autoimmune system with deadly good taste. Bruce continues:
“I include poets in this listing. I’d say I grew out of Whitman and Wolfe; I grew into Eliot and Stevens and to some degree Faulkner; I have an indifference to Updike and Dostoyevsky, finding Updike’s Rabbit novels tiresome and Dostoyevsky’s books dull. I came to Dreiser and Cather rather late. I find Shakespeare, Keats, Tolstoy, James, Proust, Dickinson, Hardy, Larkin, and Dickens `indomitably great.’ This is partial list, of course.”
Our tastes are pretty close. I’d want to add Tolstoy, Chekhov and Evelyn Waugh to the I.G. list. Such an approach to books and reading repudiates both canon-builders and functional illiterates. Our “partial list” has been consumer-tested. It’s not imposed from the outside but generated pragmatically from the inside.