Sunday, November 22, 2020

'I'm Appalled at the Arrogance'

“Whenever I see someone denigrate a book that is 100 years old or more, and scornfully call it bad, boring, and overrated, I can’t help wondering why they can’t be a bit more, you know, humble.”

Because humility is a rare human impulse and denigration is easier than gratitude. Think about it in reductive terms: Someone writes a book. It is widely read or not. Some critics champion it. Others dismiss it. A century later, a reader takes it from the library shelf and something tells him to give it a chance. In my experience, that’s a critical moment, one I don’t understand. Choosing a book about which you know little or nothing is an act of hope and faith. I won’t get into the merits of “vibes,” except to say they exist. As an adolescent, that’s how I first encountered Kafka and Dostoevsky, writers once important to me. The method isn’t foolproof. Sometimes we choose dull or stupid books, or books that aren’t right for us. Perhaps we are not the ideal reader. Kafka and Dostoevsky are no longer right for me but others prize them. The library is a big place

The passage at the top was written by a blogger in England, Hai Di Nguyen. I like the simplicity and charm of the sentiment. Literature is a vast gift, free for the taking. It's not that old is good and new is bad. Our ancestors wrote plenty of lousy books. Our blogger has standards:   

“Of course, not all writers I initially don’t like end up becoming favourites. I still struggle with Henry James. I have reservations against Charlotte Bronte, and doubt I can ever warm to George Eliot. People do have personal taste.”

Serious readers are idiosyncratic. I love James and Eliot, and have never read Brontë. I see that Nguyen loves The Tale of Genji. Despite several resolutions, I still haven’t read it. Part of humility is knowing our weaknesses and limitations. Do I read Lady Murasaki or Proust again? At my age, the decision isn’t obvious. How refreshing to encounter a young reader so ambitious, open-minded, confident and industrious:

“To me, Tolstoy and Melville are giants, towering above almost everyone else in literature—when facing Anna Karenina, War and Peace, or Moby Dick, I’m overwhelmed, I’m in awe of their genius. When I see a reader express not only dislike but also disdain towards them, part of me is amused—these books need no defence. But at the same time, I’m appalled at the arrogance.”

Like humility, awe is sparsely distributed among readers and other humans.

1 comment:

Hai Di Nguyen said...

Oh hi. Thanks for this.