Influential Books (ii)
As of Thursday evening, my list of influential books has expanded to include:
The addition gives me some pause, however, and it would be as well, I think, to give an account of this list, its whys and wherefores, its origins and impulses, else it lapse into a pompous and merely bibliographic obscurity. Before I can begin this inquiry, a few facts must be made plain. I am neither a scholar nor a critic of literature—nor am I a student thereof, save by aspiration. Harold Bloom, Stanley Fish, & co. have nothing to fear from me, for my readings remain unanalyzed, the prose unparsed, the poetry unconstrued. Nonetheless, I do have scruples; ‘one must,’ as D.H. Lawrence pointed out in a rare moment of lucidity, ‘discriminate.’ 1 These scruples (or prejudices) of mine are divisible into three points, which I shall, for your convenience, set out in a list:
- To read for improvement, to read for one’s cleverness, to read for edification are all a waste of time. One reads for nourishment, a book providing food for the brain as dinner does for the stomach.
- Just as the palate varies from person to person—here being a gourmand and there a mere consumer of comestibles—so, too, various readers are suited to different fare: to some Stephen King, to others Horace Walpole, the effect is much the same. (Note: however pleased one may be by one’s digestion (or comprehension), it is not a thing to boast of; to prefer Beckett to Bridget Jones is a sign of personal preference, not moral worth.)
- A book may safely age, and so it matters not a jot if one waits another year to read it; try it now, ’tis dust and ashes, wait a year, it is a feast, with table settings and all. Forced diets are rarely successful; or, if they have a momentary effect, it cannot be sustained. Gagging through all of Richardson’s Clarissa is a waste of time, for it is meant to divert the mind, not to numb it; reading Ulysses at seventeen seems to me silly, for one will not get the jokes—and glosses are no replacement for well-earned laughter.
A skeptical reader will say I see no value in education, which could be seen as a series of books which are always almost too difficult for the pupil’s comprehension. Not at all. I value education a great deal, it is one of the great processes of life; but like other great processes of life (including those not lofty enough to mention at the dinner table) I don’t feel any especial reverence for it. This is, and I acknowledge it, a result of my privilege; just as only the constipated can value a good sh*t, so too only those debarred from learning can know the true importance of an education.
‘What do I think of Rupert Birkin?’ repeated Gudrun. ‘I think he’s attractive—decidedly attractive. What I can’t stand about him is his way with other people—his way of treating any little fool as if she were his greatest consideration. One feels so awfully sold, oneself.’
‘Why does he do it?’ said Ursula.
‘Because he has no real critical faculty—of people, at all events,’ said Gudrun. ‘I tell you, he treats any little fool as he treats me or you—and it’s such an insult.’
‘Oh, it is,’ said Ursula. ‘One must discriminate.’
‘One must discriminate,’ repeated Gudrun. ‘But he’s a wonderful chap, in other respects—a marvellous personality. But you can’t trust him.’
‘Yes,’ said Ursula vaguely. She was always forced to assent to Gudrun’s pronouncements, even when she was not in accord altogether.
– D.H. Lawrence (Women in Love, ch. 1)[↩]