Friday, January 26, 2018

`Progress in the Art of Reading'

“Read over again the ten best books that you have already read. The result of this experiment will test your taste, measure your advance, and fit you for progress in the art of reading.”

Let’s fudge “best” and substitute “most reliable,” “most companionable,” plain old “favorite.” What I mean are the books you long for when you’re out of town, books you can open on a whim and happily browse, in which you can start reading a sentence, close your eyes and finish it from memory. Here’s mine, hastily spewed, not premeditated:

James Boswell: Life of Johnson
Samuel Johnson: Lives of the English Poets
A.J. Liebling: Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris
Shakespeare: Plays
Zbigniew Herbert: Barbarian in the Garden
Vladimir Nabokov: Pale Fire
Laurence Sterne: Tristram Shandy
Whitney Balliett: American Musicians II
Anton Chekhov: Stories
Philip Larkin: Complete Poems
Whittaker Chambers: Witness

That’s eleven, I know, but really it’s even more than that because the Shakespeare I most often use comes in three volumes, as does the Boswell, and the Garnett translation of Chekhov’s Tales has thirteen. The point is not numbers but time-tested compatibility, the pleasing fit of reader to book.

The advice at the top is drawn from Henry Van Dyke’s “A Preface on Reading and Books,” which serves as an introduction to Counsel Upon the Reading of Books (1900). Andrew Rickard at his blog Graveyard Masonry quotes an excerpt. The volume consists of six essays delivered in 1898-99 at the American Society for the Extension of University Teaching in Philadelphia. I’ve skimmed the six and found them dry and academic in the old-fashioned sense. Van Dyke makes good, practical sense:

“Read plenty of books about people and things, but not too many books about books. Literature is not to be taken in emulsion. The only way to know a great author is to read his works for yourself. That will give you knowledge at first-hand.”

Consume the entrée before the sides. Ignore the critics. Consider the presumption of someone eager to tell you what and how to read. Trust your own damn instincts until it’s time to revise or jettison them. Here is Van Dyke’s wisest counsel: “Read the old books, — those that have stood the test of time. Read them slowly, carefully, thoroughly. They will help you to discriminate among the new ones.”

In this he echoes Hazlitt and Lamb. The Library of Today is small and provincial. The Library of the Past is vast and catholic. Hazlitt plays the reactionary when he memorably opens his essay like this: “I hate to read new books. There are twenty or thirty volumes that I have read over and over again, and these are the only ones that I have any desire ever to read at all.” After two centuries, he’s still offending partisans of the new.

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