Wednesday, June 15, 2016
Finding a Good Book
My blog essays vary considerably in their lack of ambition, but mainly readers get a snapshot of my Tuesday mind around lunchtime when I realize with a start that it is Tuesday around lunchtime. This week was an exception. I had a really serious topic—what I’ll call in short hand the Stanford rape case—and I was mulling over some issues in my head for a couple of days. Then the Orlando massacre occurred, an event so horrible as to silence more modest revulsions, yet one concerning which I have nothing conceivably useful to say.
Furthermore there came into my mind from the ether the advice of the Apostle: “whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report… think on these things.” A scholar’s life is like all others in most respects. Its girders are family and friends, its secondary framing the other human relationships connected to them and to one’s professional duties and habits. How lucky I have been in all these regards. One particularly marvelous aspect of the scholarly life is that you actually get paid for reading books. It occurs to me that at least a few readers who read just for the love of truth, beauty, enlightenment or amusement might be interested in some professional advice.
“Of making many books there is no end,” wrote the biblical sage at a time when there were many millions fewer of them than there are today—before adding sagely “and much study wearies the body.” A time will arrive in your life, if it has not already arrived, when you will realize with a pang that there is no possible way that you will be able to read all the books you will want to read, need to read, would be better for reading. So many books, so little time.
One classic mistake sometimes made by even sophisticated readers is an overemphasis on the contemporary. You probably ought to do no more than a tenth of your reading from among titles taken from the current book reviews. You would never limit your appreciation of music to works composed in the last twelve months or your enjoyment of painting to canvases finished in the last two weeks. There is nothing wrong with reading to “keep up”—that is, from a desire to be able to participate intelligently in a larger cultural conversation—but the conversation you really want to be interested in covers centuries and continents. It is a conversation—like all the best aspects of culture—that brings the living into colloquy with the dead. Remember Milton’s wonderful observation in Areopagitica: “A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”
You can find your quarry by trial and error in a leisurely walk through the stacks of any reasonably well stocked public library, but I have found it helpful to call upon the aid of others who have thought longer and more systematically than I. Among my books there are three to which I make recourse on a pretty regular basis.
The first of these is now called An English Library: a Bookman’s Guide, by F. Seymour Smith. The first edition, dated 1943, which I picked up back in the Fifties, was one of those funny old wartime British books that seemed to be printed on crumbling toilet paper. The edition I now use—there may well be a more recent one—dates from 1963. Its new introduction begins: “An English Library, like wartime willow-herb, grew on a bomb site.” It is double the size of the original effort, but still true to the old subtitle: “An Annotated List of Classics and Standard Books”. If you were to read half of them, you’d be reading at a very high standard indeed.
The second reference work is a much more recent addition. I became addicted to it only during my fairly recent residence in Paris. The second-hand book trade in France is miserable. The old joke about boarding house fare—“the food is absolute poison, and such small quantities”—seems vaguely relevant. There is not really a lot on offer, and the prices will strike an American as shockingly high. But at the Saturday market in Georges Brassens Park in the Fifteenth I was willing to pay 10€ for La Bibliothèque idéale, which is one of the “Encyclopédies d’aujourd’hui” of the Livres de poche series. Its subject matter, cunningly distributed over a thousand pages, is French-language books (including many translations) that a couple of Parisian intellectuals consider your best intellectual diet. They have forty-nine categories, and in each of them they list and characterize what they take to be the ten most important, the twenty-five most important, and the forty-nine most important titles. Notice that they leave you a whole category to make up for yourself, and within each category you get to choose one additional title. Robbespierrean democracy.
Finally, I use an American book—Steven Gilbar’s Good Books: A Book Lover’s Companion (Ticknor and Fields, 1982). This is another huge and promiscuous catalogue, organized by interesting and often enough eccentric category, that eschews the obviously highbrow. A nice feature of this book from my point of view is that it has a foreword by Clifton Fadiman—a name that will be familiar to you only if you are getting on in years. He was one of the great public literary intellectuals of the Fifties, and the host of a popular quiz program. He features tangentially in my Anti-Communist Manifestos. We also just happen to have two elegant modernist Danish wood and leather beds that once belonged to him in our crawlspace, though I shudder to imagine their current condition. I’ll reserve the account of how Clifton Fadiman’s beds got into my crawlspace for the next time I am desperate for a blog topic. The next time you are desperate for some good bibliographical advice you can turn to any of the three books mentioned.