Wednesday, January 22, 2020

'His Cursory Mode of Reading'

I spent my younger years reading to the finish every book I started. My motives were mixed, pride being the prime mover. I didn’t like the idea of a book defeating me. I took it personally. The advantage of this strategy is reading a lot of books that might in some way be good for me if not particularly enjoyable, like eating kale. It also hones one’s ability to distinguish gradations of quality on a scale ranging from the essential to abysmal wastes of time. The disadvantage is losing time that might be spent on better, more interesting books. Now I feel no compunction over permanently closing a volume even after reading only a page or two. It helps that I’m no longer impressed by reputation or take lousy books as personal affronts.

A reader writes to complain that I’m not giving writers a chance. Closing a book prematurely is unfair, he says: “An author works hard writing a book. You should work hard reading it.” Although it’s true, as Dr. Johnson put it, that “What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure” (Johnsonian Miscellanies, ed. G.B. Hill, 1897), intensive labors by a writer guarantee nothing. There’s nothing fair about art. Life is too short to squander it on dullness and stupidity. Boswell reports this exchange taking place on April 19, 1773:

Mr. Elphinston talked of a new book that was much admired, and asked Dr. Johnson if he had read it. JOHNSON: ‘I have looked into it.’ ‘What,’ said Elphinston, ‘have you not read it through?’ Johnson, offended at being thus pressed, and so obliged to own his cursory mode of reading, answered tartly, ‘No, Sir, do you read books through?’" [Italics in the original.]

[See “I Can’t Afford These First Editions, but I Buy Them Anyway” by Stephen Marche: “The bookish are a tribe in resistance now; this is the most essential change to our way of life as a people. Every person who picks up a book is consciously turning away from a screen.”]


rgfrim said...

A would-be disciple sought to impress the fearful Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotz by boasting that he had been through the Talmud six times. The “ Kotzker” cooly inquired: “Oh? How many times has the Talmud been through you?”

John Christopher said...

From a profile of Tyler Cowen, a man whose reading habits rival Dalrymple’s:

He takes his own advice, saying he finishes one book for every five to 10 he starts.

“People have this innate view — it comes from friendship and marriage — that commitment is good. Which I agree with,” he says. That view shouldn’t, he says, carry over to inanimate objects.

“We should treat books a little more like we treat TV channels,” he argues. No one has trouble flipping away from a boring series.
Books are another story. Mr. Cowen thinks our education instills the belief that books somehow are sacred. Not to him.

“If I’m reading a truly, actively bad book, I’ll throw it out,” he says. His wife will protest, but he points out that he’s doing a public service: “If I don’t throw it out, someone else might read it.” If that person is one of the many committed to finishing a book once started, he’s actually doing harm.