Monday, February 11, 2019

'We Can Never Read the Bad Too Little'

Simon Leys was fond of quoting a passage from Schopenhauer devoted to what he called “the art of not reading”:

“It consists in our not taking up that which just happens to occupy the larger public at any time, such as political or literary pamphlets, novels, poems, and the like, which make such a stir . . .. On the contrary, we should bear in mind that whoever writes for fools always finds a large public; and we should devote the all too little time we have for reading exclusively to the works of the great minds of all nations and all ages . . . Only these really educate and instruct. We can never read the bad too little and the good too often.”

A self-evident truth, you’re saying to yourself. Life is short. We never have enough time for the important things. Of course we’ll read The City of God and put aside the latest James Patterson. My experience with reading has been a little different. Think of one’s intake of books across a lifetime as an inverted triangle. We start out indiscriminately, innocently, ignorant of literary history and with unformed critical standards. We are goatish omnivores. When young, only by reading bad books can we learn to identify good ones. My James Patterson at age twelve was Edgar Rice Burroughs, dead two years before I was born. And the Doc Savage series, published two decades before I arrived. I read them quickly, sometimes a book a day, and as quickly forgot them, bookish fast food. No regrets. I didn’t know any better, but the experience immunized me against the Patterson virus. I could never again be happy reading pulp.

Some will object: “Elitism! Snobbery!” I’ll admit to being a prig when young, reading some books (Sartre! Camus!) exclusively so I could say I had read them. That quickly turns tedious. Remember the inverted triangle: it narrows because you read not fewer books but better books. By the age of sixty-six, I’m mostly reading books I’ve already read, none of it pulp. In Simon Leys: Navigator Between Worlds (trans. Julie Rose, La Trobe University Press, 2017), Philippe Paquet writes:

“[H]e observed that ‘Waugh’s grace and dexterity with words’ revealed first ‘the primordial importance of style’ – for him. But, Leys qualified, Waugh nonetheless refuted the theory according to which, often, the success of a work does not depend on the ideas expressed in it. He reminded us that, for Waugh, ‘all literature implies moral standards and criticisms.’”

A lifetime of reading might be distilled like this: One learns to navigate between pure style on one shore and “moral standards and criticisms” on the other. Stick to the middle channel and avoid grounding on aesthetic shallows and didactic sandbars. The rest is smooth sailing.          

[The passage from Schopenhauer is taken from Parega and Paralipomena: Short Philosophical Essays (1851), Chapter XXIV, “On Reading and Books.” Leys’ “Terror of Babel: Evelyn Waugh” is collected in The Hall of Uselessness (2013).] 

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