Tuesday, June 11, 2024

'Let One Book Lead Him to Another'

I have not run the analytics but I believe the Joseph Epstein essay with the longest shelf life and largest number of citations is “Joseph Epstein’s Lifetime Reading Plan,” published in The American Scholar in 1983 and collected four years later in Once More Around the Block. A perfunctory search suggests people, mostly bloggers, are still reading and citing it. Three readers have recently asked me to draw up reading lists for them. A similar request is the starting place for Epstein’s essay. In his second paragraph he writes: “When someone asks you to make a list of books for him to read he is, whether he knows it or not, really asking, ‘How do I become an educated person?’” 

I can’t argue. People aren’t asking me (or, presumably, Epstein) for a science fiction reading list or one devoted to self-help or cookbooks. Those genres can take care of themselves. We all recognize, even the populists among us, what the phrase “books of substance” means. Epstein’s first question to his student is: “Have you read the Greek philosophers?” No need to explain that. Call it the canon, the Western Civ “core,” the books that even my parents, born more than a century ago and both non-readers, would acknowledge as important. That “lifetime” list, which is vast and dear to me, will not be reproduced here.  


I recognize my own contrary streak. If I’m told to read a book, I generally won’t, so drawing up a list would be hypocritical and probably futile. My reading habits are my own, rooted in whim, serendipity, pleasure and a hunger for learning, and often a matter of rereading. I couldn’t formalize that "plan" if I tried. I haven’t had a “reading plan” since I was in school, when the curriculum demanded it. All dedicated readers develop reliable networks of critics they trust, whether Dr. Johnson, a blogger or even a brother-in-law. We do this with movies. Why not books? Epstein is good in this role, as was Guy Davenport. The good news is that access to books has never been easier, cheaper or, for lack of a better description, more democratic. Near the conclusion of his essay, Epstein writes:


“What I did tell [his student], finally, was to read no junky books, to haunt used-book stores, and to let one book lead him to another. And I tried to make clear to him that amusement, beauty, and, with a bit of luck, wisdom are picked up along the way in a reading life. But there is no systematic way to go about it, no list, no key to the kingdom of the educated.”


Thomas Parker said...

To each his own, but the very idea of a lifetime reading plan makes me break out in hives; it's like minutely planning every meal you're going to eat for the next twenty years. Nothing even the least bit junky, ever? It sounds admirable in principle, but in real life it strikes me as more than a bit inhuman, like deciding that you're going to be a saint, or swearing off Abbott and Costello in favor of nothing but Ingemar Bergman, or vowing to never again eat a hot dog or attend a minor-league hockey game.

Tim Guirl said...

In high school I read Clifton Fadiman's Lifetime Reading Plan and Evelyn Wood's book, Speed Reading. I ditched the Lifetime Reading Plan in favor of following unplanned reading. As for speeding reading, the book convinced me that my way of reading is the slower the more enjoyable. High speed reading is like listening to a speeded-up version of Beethoven's Quartets.