Sunday, April 18, 2021

'But Why, in General, Should One Read?'

In August 1918, three months before the Armistice, F.L. Lucas (1894-1967), a staff lieutenant in the Intelligence Corps, was interrogating German prisoners of war at Candas in Picardy. He befriended a Fähnrich, or ensign, who refused to give him any information. Instead, they talked casually about their postwar plans. “I have never forgotten his cry of unfeigned horror, when I said I should go back to the University, left at the end of my first year—‘Was! Ein Bücherwurm warden!’” Lucas is obviously proud to have been identified as a bookworm, that universal term of contempt. 

The centerpiece of The Greatest Problem and Other Essays (1960) is “Of Books,” a wayward, fifty-two-page autobiography. Like any seasoned reader, Lucas recounts his life by way of the books he was reading. At age ten he discovered Herodotus, “a great artist who yet seems artlessly natural; a wise, tragic ironist who yet talks as simply as a child.” Here I blush, not having read Herodotus until well into my fifties. Equally shameful is a comparison of our first encounters with Gibbon. Lucas read him at ten, asking his mother the meaning of unfamiliar words. I didn’t read Gibbon in full until I was forty-seven.


Lucas doesn’t come off as a braggart. In the Edwardian period, many boys and young men of his class (and probably at least a few women) read industriously. He was intelligent but no prodigy. I want to believe there are still such young, serious readers among us, who read not for “success” or simple diversion but because it is pleasure-giving and seems like a good thing to do. At age eleven, Lucas tells us, his father began teaching him Greek – with Homer, not textbooks. He took Homer with him when he entered the Army in October 1914:


“Those years 1914-18, though an unspeakable disaster to mankind—worse perhaps than we realize even yet—brought me individually, I suppose, more good than harm; despite a year and a half in hospitals, a deaf ear, and damaged lung.”


When wounded by shrapnel at the Somme in May 1916, he spent three months in a hospital, reading Kipling and Boswell. He summarized his life after being discharged in late 1918: “Two months later I was an undergraduate again. Twenty years of books; then on 3-9-39 a naval uniform knocked at my gate and asked how long I needed to pack.”


Lucas’ tone is consistently commonsensical and democratic. He’s not out to lord it over those who read less or not at all. He asks, matter-of-factly:


“But why, in general, should one read? And what? And how? And how much? Not for me to lay down laws about it—I am merely asking myself what, rather to my own surprise, I seem never to have asked myself systematically before. And even if my tastes and ideas seem to the reader mere quirks and eccentricities, they may yet be of some slight service. For it is by comparison with the views of others, however wrong-headed, that one can often clarify and fortify one’s own.”


I’ll draw away for a moment from Lucas. I’ve never felt the need to justify my reading. It’s what I’ve always done and its pleasures have never palled. It’s inexpensive, especially today, when virtually every book is available in some form free of charge. It does others no harm. Wide reading, when reflected on, sharpens understanding. Intimate dealings with the minds of others who are learned and thoughtful – the truest form of diversity -- can only be beneficial. Lucas puts it like this:


“[S]upposing it to have value, intelligence is surely a good deal dependent on contact with other minds; the sharper, the better. . . . Unfortunately, what Johnson called ‘solid talk,’ where real things are ‘discussed,’ was always rare, and now seems rarer still. It is not produced by putting a dozen persons round a room, to conduct half a dozen perfunctory duologues; it demands the maintenance of one general conversation among all—an art which most moderns (and most modern hostesses) not only lack, but do not even know to exist.”


Lucas’s understanding of conversation recalls Michael Oakeshott’s: “It is the ability to participate in this conversation, and not the ability to reason cogently, to make discoveries about the world, or to contrive a better world, which distinguishes the human being from the animal and the civilized man from the barbarian.”


Richard Zuelch said...

"A man ought to read just as inclination leads him, for what he reads as a task will do him little good." - Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

Unknown said...