Our reading choices build our intellectual universe book by book, essay by essay, poem by poem. We who read are faced each day with choices about what, from the extraordinary delta of writing flowing past our islands, to pluck from the flow, set aside and (perhaps) read. How do we decide what is worth the risk of reading?
I use the word “risk” in its Vidalian sense: Gore Vidal has famously written that he only reads fiction by Nobel prize winners, thereby being assured that he will never read a bad book. This is the opportunity-cost approach to reading that brings the word “risk” to mind. We have only a limited number of hours in which to read. Some of that time is necessarily spent reading professional material which, although it may contain kernels or even nuggets necessary for our work, also contains enough mere dicta, the space-filling dreck and overstuffed furnishings of academe, that we don’t generally read it for pleasure or enlightenment.
We are increasingly expected to make no errors in our reading decisions, to avoid side channels and to read the “right” books, especially because we are all short of time. Sometimes these books, the ones “everybody” is reading, prove to be exceptionally good, for example Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. Sometimes they leave us wondering “what was that all about?” I have a list of the latter that my lawyer would rather I not publish.
It is true that my own tastes are suspect. After all, I have said many times that Moby Dick is a brilliant story up to the point that whales enter the picture. I know some English professors who agree with me, but they have to pretend that they think the book is great because everyone knows that it is. How can you get tenure if you think Moby Dick is a turkey instead of a whale?
There is a peculiar lack of judgment, or perhaps a lack of willingness to judge, in what we hear of books. It is pretty rare to hear someone say that a book is awful, especially if received wisdom says otherwise. But what is a good book, really? A good book is a book that inspires you, that resonates with you, that conveys a message to you that is effective. What it does for a reviewer at the Times Review of Books, Toni Morrison or President Bush makes no difference.
There is one way to resolve the question of what to read when presented with the stacks of new books that tumble like so much clinker-lava into our mailboxes, doorways and work-spaces. Ignore them. Take a break from the new and return to the books that have made a difference for you in the past. These are the books that have always spoken with a clear voice, have such a rich weave that different threads are visible in each new reading, or seem to adjust their effect successfully when read under different conditions or in different settings.
Most of us have these books to which we return, year after year, when the latest stack looks a lot like slag, the nuggets are oppressed by excessive overburden (I dedicate that phrase to the memory of W. H. Auden, who loved mines and geologic terminology) and we need a refresher in every sense of the word. Thus I return to Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia, Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, the essays of John Jay Chapman, Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Hitchens and Vidal, Asimov’s Foundation series and the mysteries of Arthur Upfield (yes, one can profit from reading mysteries many times, if they glow with setting and humanity as Upfield’s do).
The poetry of Carl Phillips (well-known), Cameron La Follette and Leonard Cirino (‘unknown’) and W.S. Merwin (ultra-famous) meets my needs at a similar level: it doesn’t matter which ones are the “best” or best-known. The nation’s most gifted poets are not necessarily like each other: I might enjoy the rushing surges of Reginald Shepherd one day and the delicate brush-notes of Ce Rosenow the next.
I also think Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1915 children’s story The Lost Prince ought to be considered a classic owing in part to a character called The Rat, and I have read Arthur Ransome’s young adult adventures many times.
Likewise, there are some very well-known and successful writers, e.g. Charles Simic and Ray Bradbury, whose work simply doesn’t reach me. So make your own decisions about my tastes. It is true that we need to emerge from our lexical wombs and try new things now and then, but if reading a book, no matter how Great or touted, results only in a yawn or a who-cares, we are not obligated to salute it.
I recently had occasion to evaluate a formal Great Books program for a college in another state, and the school proposing the program seemed to realize that in this whirling cloud of iPods, MySpace, cellular devices, Blackberries and other electronic shrubbery, they need to do something to make books interesting to students at all. To their credit, they realized that the canon, although mostly traditional, needed to have its windows opened to let some new air in.
What do we recommend to young readers? Too often it is what they “should” read rather what we ourselves actually like and find most enjoyable and enlightening, not just once, but over time. For that reason I don’t usually give young people books from the heavier or more ancient end of the spectrum (except maybe the Satyricon). I give copies of the things that I have the most passion about and that have made the most difference to me. I can’t sound genuinely enthusiastic about anything else.
When I have given a young person one of my own choices, I often find that yes, nineteen-year-olds can and do decouple from their electronic universe to read a good book. There is, of course, an element of self-selection and cherry-picking involved: I encounter few dullards because I choose to avoid them. Yet I was once a fraternity advisor and participated in a round of pass-the-bottle with young people who were largely in the middle and lower register of the academic production line, and some of them read books, too.
We who claim that writing is important too often assume that students’ lack of interest in course-related reading or books means that they are not interested in words in general. That is less true than we sometimes think. If we take the time to offer young people unusual reading choices that reflect our own passion for reading, we’d see that although the text may not be on their iWhatever, it may still catch the sparks that all young people have, and kindle from those sparks fires different from our own, but light, real light, all the same.