Wednesday, April 11, 2018

`Any Book That Is Wiser Than Yourself'

A friend often urges me to read Carlyle and I do, in small, incremental portions. I read Sartor Resartus forty-five years ago because Melville read it. As in life, the convergence of anger and volubility in a writer’s work keeps me at a distance. I interpret unmediated anger as petulance. Tantrums, for their throwers, are intoxicating, while the rest of us endure the tedium (and fear, sometimes).

A reader alerted me to a letter written by Carlyle in 1843 to an unidentified young man seeking advice on which books he ought to read. Carlyle’s reply is prudent. Advice is a risky business, inviting disappointment and resentment:

“. . . a long experience has taught me that advice can profit but little; that there is a good reason why advice is so seldom followed; this reason, namely, that it so seldom, and can almost never be, rightly given. No man knows the state of another; it is always to some more or less imaginary man that the wisest and most honest adviser is speaking.”

Carlyle is refreshingly short on specifics. He suggests no canon-building Great Books or Five-Foot Shelf. Instead, he recommends free-range grazing: “. . . you may be strenuously advised to keep reading. Any good book, any book that is wiser than yourself, will teach you something — a great many things indirectly or directly, if your mind be open to learn.” Of course, you’ll want to read Dante and Shakespeare, Carlyle suggests, but you’ll figure that out on your own. Just go after “any book that is wiser than yourself” – a handy elucidation of “any good book,” which Carlyle leaves undefined. He also makes no mention of contemporary books, magazine fodder:

“All books are properly the record of the history of past men — what thoughts past men have had in them — what actions past men did: the summary of all books whatsoever is there. It is on this ground that the class of books specifically named History can be safely recommended as the basis of all study of books — the preliminary to all right and full understanding of anything we can expect to find in books.”

That some of the essential books – Herodotus, Gibbon, Henry Adams – are history in the formal sense bolsters the importance Carlyle places on “pastness.” The present is a provincial cul de sac. Carlyle voices a theme later developed by Chesterton in his essay “On Reading”:

“The first use of good literature is that it prevents a man from being merely modern. To be merely modern is to condemn oneself to an ultimate narrowness; just as to spend one’s last earthly money on the newest hat is to condemn oneself to the old-fashioned. The road of the ancient centuries is strewn with dead moderns.”

Most importantly, Carlyle places reading in its proper context. For some of us, books threaten to become the world, as in a Borgesian fantasy. Though tempting, that is delusion:

“. . . it is not by books alone, or books chiefly, that a man becomes in all points a man. Study to do faithfully whatsoever thing in your actual situation, then and now, you find either expressly or tacitly to your charge - that is your post; stand in it like a true soldier.”

1 comment:

The Sanity Inspector said...

Art is not the same thing as cerebration. I imagine that by
any test that could be devised, Carlyle would be found to be a more
intelligent man than Trollope. Yet Trollope has remained readable and
Carlyle has not: with all his cleverness he had not even the wit to
write in plain straightforward English.
-- George Orwell, in _Tribune_, 2 November 1945

Carlyle is a poet to whom nature has denied the faculty of verse.
-- Alfred, Lord Tennyson, letter to W. E. Gladstone, c.1870

The words in Carlyle seem electrified into an energy of lineament, like the faces of men furiously moved.
-- Robert Louis Stevenson, On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature