My youngest son, a sophomore, is taking an English class in the postwar American novel. He’s a political science major hoping to study law, so the English class is more obligation than labor of love, though for me it would be a labor nearly without love. The students are assigned a mere four novels to read this semester, only one of which is worth reading – Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2004). The rest, charitably described, is junk fiction. No Isaac Bashevis Singer, John Cheever, Vladimir Nabokov, Bernard Malamud, Flannery O’Connor, Ralph Ellison or Saul Bellow. No William Maxwell, Thomas Berger, Richard Yates, Eudora Welty, Charles Portis, Wright Morris, J.F. Powers or Peter De Vries. No attempt to be genuinely, in literary terms, “diverse.” No surprises, no challenges, no laughs.
A few days after my son sent me his assigned list of titles, a reader informed me that my reading habits are “desultory” – an ambiguous adjective. Does it mean flighty, without attentiveness, lacking in systemization? Or wide-ranging, cover-the-waterfront and eclectic? A little of each, I suspect, and it’s always been the way I go about things. My reading has never followed anyone’s syllabus, not even my own. When I was a sophomore I took a class in the eighteenth-century English novel. The reading list for the semester included eight titles. Among them were two novels from neither the eighteenth century nor England – Don Quixote and John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor.
That’s my idea of a reading list and an influential model for my own reading method, which is no method at all. Among my allies in this non-endeavor is Joseph Epstein in his essay “Bookless in Gaza” (The Middle of My Tether, 1983):
“Part of the pleasure in reading is in the splendor of language properly deployed, but an even greater part comes from satisfying one’s curiosity. If lust has an intellectual equivalent, might it not be curiosity which is allowed free rein? Though few are the books I regret having read, much of my reading has been altogether desultory—and continues to be.”
Epstein goes on to catalog his to-be-read list – ten titles, including Gershom Scholem’s masterpiece, Sabbatai Sevi – and concludes:
“Separately these books represent many amusing and instructive hours; taken together they do not, as they say down at the gas station, make a whole hell of a lot of sense.”