READING AND WRITING:
This section started as a joke. I responded to a post on an e-mail discussion group I drop into from time to time by telling someone who had complained that she just wasn't "that well read," that I'd "make [her] a list." I expected everybody to laugh. Instead, I got half a dozen posts requesting that I do just that--make a list of books I thought everybody should have read if they were to be able to call themselves "well-read," tell them what to look for, suggest what to buy.
That was almost a year ago, and in all this time I've been stopped at the beginning of this project by a set of problems I really don't know how to solve. One is the obvious question of selection. There are a lot of books out there. I can always come up with a few "absolutely necessaries" off the top of my head--King Lear, for instance, and Dante's Inferno, and the Odyssey--and a few more must-haves-for-background-purposes, like Plato's Republic and Machiavelli's The Prince. But once you get much beyond that, the going gets stickier. There used to be something called The Western Canon, which was a list of books everybody was supposed to have read if they wanted to call themselves "educated." The humanities humanize, Matthew Arnold said, and the best defense we have against the innate brutality of human beings is to make sure they know the best that has been thought and said across the long centuries of Western civilization. The truth was, though, that as soon as we actually needed a list, the game was over. We need lists because we no longer automatically read the books that are on them. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson could count on the fact that even "rude, untutored" men had read the King James Version of the Bible. Freshman English teachers these days can't count on their students having read a single Garfield comic strip. The world has moved on since the 18th century. Does it really make sense to make everybody read the novels of Jane Austen or Fichte's philosophy of the self? There's more cultural life in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein than in all her husband's poetry combined. A 21st century reader would be handicapped more if he knew nothing about Superman than if he knew nothing about Orlando Furioso.
It's not enough to pick a bunch of books because they're well written, or "important" in the sense of being required reading for English majors, or because you read them yourself in high school and haven't been able to get them out of your head. Before you make your list, you have to know what it is you're making it for. Before you can advise someone on how to become "well read," you have to know what he means by that. Reading is a good thing, but we don't do it in isolation from the rest of our lives.
The second problem is related, because not only do you have to know what your advisee means by being "well read," you have to know what he means when he says he "reads." For many people outside academia--and for not a few inside it, in the hard sciences especially-- "reading" is a passive act, sort of like watching television. You read to be entertained, and the entertainment involved is something done to you. I have read posts to my favorite newsgroup that declare unequivocally that the purpose of reading is relaxation, and that the reader in question will immediately abandon any book that makes him work in any way at all. Unfamiliar vocabulary, nuanced approaches to characters and ideas, intricately woven systems of symbolism are all beyond the pale. Even the expectation that the reader should understand what a phrase like "beyond the pale" means and where it comes from is beyond the pale. The book is a product. The reader is a consumer. The relationship between the book and the reader is like the relationship between the diner and the Big Mac. Eat it up, chug it down, flush it out and forget about it.
Okay. Maybe that was a stronger image than I was meaning to use. Or maybe not.
The thing is, to be "well read" means first and foremost to read well, and to read well means to abandon the idea that books are something you can, or should, experience without effort. Reading is not a vacation, it's a sport, and as with any sport, the more you practice the better you get. I can put up a list of books on this website, and a set of commentaries telling you what I think about them, but it won't do you much good if you go at it the way I go at cleaning my refrigerator: process, process, process, finish.
University English departments used to have this as their primary mission: to teach undergraduates how to read. They don't seem to any more, in many places, and I'd like to say the result has been a generation of college graduates who treat Madame Bovary as if it's an episode of Sex in the City. I'd like to, but I won't, because I've become peculiarly aware of the fact that the English speaking world is full of people who are untrained or minimally trained in how to read deeply, and yet who manage to do it all the time, sometimes even obsessively. Go out on the web someday and look at fan sites for authors like J.R.R. Tolkein, Douglas Adams, and Terry Pratchett. Fourteen year old boys who are normally so inarticulate that they can't formulate a coherent answer to the question, "But why didn't you do your math homework yesterday?" can take a copy of Small Gods, analyze the plot for parallels in the real world and Dostoyevski's Grand Inquisitor, deconstruct the iconography as it relates to the novels of Franz Kafka and the disciplinary peculiarities of their eighth grade social studies nun, and write a ten-page essay to post on the web about the teachings of the Prophet Brutha and their political implications for the presidential race between John Kerry and George W. Bush.
Some people read well and some do not. For the people who do not, lists like the one I'm about to make for this section of this website are a disservice. They give a false impression: that if you read your canon the way you take your medicine, it will work on you in the same way the medicine would. Ignorance is the disease. You'll cure it if you just hold your nose and swallow your Leo Tolstoy. Well, you won't. And reading because you're forcing yourself to, reading blindly and without comprehension, reading that feels bad, is like doing all the wrong things when you practice. It makes you worse at the game, not better.
The third problem is the big one, the one to which I have no answer, and no idea of what would constitute the proper approach. Matthew Arnold was wrong. The humanities do not humanize. Highly literate people--highly "cultured" people, as we use to say--show no signs whatsoever of being less brutal, or more generous of spirit, than people with little or no understanding of the history and scope of the cultural tradition. Bookish people tend to be less physically violent than people with little or no interest in books, but that's not saying much. As the man said, one lawyer with a briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns--and he's just as much a thief. One intellectual with a Theory of Everything can kill more people than a major reservoir contaminated by a nuclear waste dump. Think of Karl Marx and of the men and women who have been willing to follow him down any bloody hellhole his ideas ever opened up in the earth. Think of G.W.F. Hegel, whose work provided the basis not only for the philosophy of Marx, but for the politics of Hitler.
I can already hear the wails of protest, the lists of good intellectuals--Albert Schweitzer, say, or Hannah Arendt, or Edith Stein--who have not only not supported totalitarian murder, but actively fought against it. It is certainly not true that reading James Joyce's Ulysses will give you a sudden urge to contribute large amounts of money to the Shining Path Guerillas, or that preferring Bach's St. Matthew Passion to Britney Spears' In The Zone will make you a companion in arms to the sort of people who want to see a Peronist revival in Argentina. The problem is, reading and listening to those things won't make you less likely to sign on to either, and the spectacle of humanities departments full of apologists for Stalin and cheerleaders for Fidel is enough to make anyone wonder if George Steiner wasn't right to ask if there is something about the higher literacy that causes people to be attracted to political brutality.
Even if you're not willing to go that far--and I'm not--the question of the relationship between intellectual interests and real life remains, and it's not as easy to answer as my professors in graduate school once said it was. I like books and reading. I left the bunny slopes of popcult years ago, and most of the books that make the New York Times bestseller lists these days bore me out of my skull. I don't understand why anybody, anywhere, has ever read a Cat Who book from beginning to end, and the Chicken Soup thing makes me bleed from the ears.
Still, it's more important to be a decent human being than to have a taste for Proust, and I'd rather live in a society full of good people whose intellectual reach never made it much past Help Lord, the Devil Wants Me Fat than an angry and ungenerous one where even the street sweepers could discuss the influence of Ovid's Metamorphoses on the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
I think, Mr. Steiner's arguments notwithstanding, that reading widely and reading well helps us to be better people and not worse ones, and that a society whose people are educated and erudite will be better than one where they are neither. I can't prove it, however, and there is enough of an argument on the other side to give me pause. I don't know, exactly, what it is I'm urging you to do here, beyond venturing out to discover that Madame Bovary has a hell of a lot more in common with Sex and the City than you ever would have thought.
Maybe I just want to make a place where people who want to know something about the history of the ideas that made the ones that now govern the world they live in can come and find a guide through the mountains of novels, essays, treatises, dissertations, histories, plays, and God knows what else that all want to be the answer to the question, "What's the one book everyone should read before they die?" You should read more than one book before you die. Then you should get on the computer and talk to people about them, because real literacy isn't about pointing to that stack of books you've plowed through, it's a conversation across time and space with people you'd otherwise never have a chance to know.
In the interests of reading and writing, then, this section of the site will contain four main areas:
*The Lists: including a MetaList of everything I think you should read if you want to call yourself "well read" in the general sense, but also including shorter lists directed at specific interests of my own or anybody who gets in touch with an idea that intrigues me. I'm already planning an American List, meaning not a list of American works in the high art tradition, but a list of works you should have read if you want to understand America, especially if you're an American.
*The Commentaries: including short pieces on the books in the lists, what they mean, how they've been interpreted over time, how they show up in things you see or read now (like the Iliad as the basis for the events retold in the movie Troy, and why I think they're so important that I'd liked to assign people to read them.
*The Essays: including longer pieces on more general questions about reading and writing, such as how to tell what should go on a list like the lists on the site, how to read well, what it means now that we know the humanities don't humanize, and that kind of thing.
*The Quizzes: starting with the 100-item literacy quiz I give my students for extra credit every year, and going on to a few more shorter ones for fun.
That ought to be enough to be going on with for a while.
Copyright © 2004 Jane Haddam. All rights reserved.
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