On the Reading of Books

Most people express themselves better in writing than in speech. As Shakespeare put it, “O! Let my books be then the eloquence / And dumb presagers of my speaking breast”. “You knows” and “sort ofs”, errors and repetitions, can be eliminated, together with inadvertently revealed opinions that on second thoughts might be better unsaid. This is why many politicians, though desirous of public celebrity, rarely move beyond platitude and truism in speeches or interviews.

Shakespeare was not convinced, however, that all humanity yearned for knowledge from books. In Henry VI Part 3, one of Cade’s rebels thinks it “a lamentable thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment” and that “that parchment, being scribbled o’er, should undo a man”. He looks back to the days when his forefathers “had no other books but the score and the tally”. John Ruskin in pessimistic vein wondered, “How long would most people look at the best book before they would give the price of a large turbot for it!” Many who have striven to bring literacy to the illiterate have found it an uphill struggle.

Reading and writing are, of course, comparatively recent accomplishments. Even more recent is the problem of there being far more books than one could possibly read. Only a few people in a few places, such as China, and the Mediterranean in Hellenic, Hellenistic and Roman times, ever faced the worry that more books were available that they would like to read than they could ever manage to read. Medieval Europe did not boast many readers. In Shaw’s Saint Joan the Earl of Warwick, when offered a book as a present, politely declines, since he already possesses a book.

Even with the spread of printing in the West, it took several decades before there were more books to read than time for even the most committed readers to read. Until the seventeenth century it was still possible to aim at, if not to achieve, being Renaissance Men: as well versed as Aristotle in more or less every important field of current knowledge. Natural philosophy still encompassed most intellectual enquiries, but was beginning to split into many subjects, each with a growing store of ideas and information. The rival claims of depth and breadth of knowledge became ever more acute, as did contention about which forms of knowledge are of most value.

Acute non-expert minds could still frequently detect inconsistency or contradiction in disputes, but even the best were forced to depend considerably on specialists. Partisanship can, of course, distort arguments, as in current disputes about global warming, in which current orthodoxy scoffs at non-experts who query received opinion, but lauds non-experts like Al Gore who endorse and publicise it. However, difficult as it often proves to be, bias and prejudice can be overcome, as is shown by our capacity to identify them, whereas no individual can come close to universal expertise.

Jonathan Swift wrote, “As learned commentators view / In Homer more than Homer knew”, and each subject of any interest attracts more and more glosses and commentaries, whilst ever more new books and their electronic media substitutes are published each day. Samuel Johnson noted that “A man will turn over half a library to make one book”. An important component in the “idea of a university” was that it would enable scholars from different disciplines to cross-fertilise each other, but it is now very difficult for colleagues in the same discipline and occupying adjacent rooms to take an interest in each other’s work or even to understand most of it. In my years as a “teacher educator”, our students were routinely urged to take an interest in all the major disciplines thought relevant to the study of education, such as its history, sociology, psychology and philosophy, but few faculty had many intellectual interests outside their own special fields.

When many subjects are vulnerable to ideological capture, “peer assessment” is often very unreliable and those who are not “peers” are like the courtiers praising the emperor’s clothes because, however ridiculous some ideas and practices currently fashionable among insiders seem to be, outsiders fear they themselves will look even more ridiculous if they offer criticisms or challenges. After some very daft research proposals were questioned by Brendan Nelson when Minister of Education, he was branded both an inquisitor and an ignoramus.

Dealing with Surfeits of Knowledge

When faced by labyrinths of knowledge, it is not surprising that many of us seek short cuts. Religious fundamentalism may serve this purpose, as may secular solutions, such as Marxism. Some more recent radical thinkers reject canons in knowledge, not only in literature, art and music, but also in history and sciences, on the grounds that if nothing is certain, then little, if anything, can be regarded as necessary knowledge, other, perhaps, than the author’s own works and opinions.

Choice among books is made easier if many are banned by totalitarian states or authoritarian churches. In one account, admittedly one of dubious credibility, of the destruction of the great library of Alexandria, Caliph Omar is supposed to have said that only the Koran was needed: all necessary truths were contained in it and all not in it was superfluous.

Should we be able to write or read anything we like? The claims of freedom and protection are often in conflict. However, we should condemn outright those who use double standards and in Jesus’ words “swallow camels but strain at gnats”: they condemn as sexist words such as mankind but defend detailed accounts and illustrations of the foulest sexual crimes conceivable. Just where lines should be drawn will, of course, forever be a matter of legitimate contention. It is true that sticks and stones may break our bones, but untrue that names never hurt us, especially when in print and other media.

Another way of reducing the range of books to read is to choose only books by people who appear to have relevant personal experience of whatever the book may be about. This, however, would not only exclude most science fiction and a wide range of imaginative literature, but also most historical works, and even Capital, since Marx never set foot in a mine or factory.

Some purported solutions beg the question. Francis Bacon held most truly that:

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly and with diligence and attention.”

We are still left, however, to decide which books should be placed in each category. If we are interested in a subject, there are often very difficult choices of genre to make: to understand love and sex, should we read How To Do It manuals, or Pride and Prejudice and Romeo and Juliet?

Some people exclude books by people, living or dead, they dislike. Addison held in the first number of the Spectator that “A reader seldom peruses a book with pleasure until he knows whether the writer of it be a black man or a fair man, of a mild or choleric disposition, married or a bachelor.” I found that many people who thought my writing acceptable when I had the reputation of being “progressive” had no time for anything I had ever written once I was branded as a “reactionary”.

Although students have for many generations, perhaps in every generation, referred to books they have never read and never intend to read, the internet has made this far more easier than in the past, at the same time as it makes far more knowledge and opinion readily available. Many academics surpass their students in claiming more extensive knowledge than they possess, as a recent offering on Islam by an Australian vice-chancellor reminded us. Some of my quotations in this article are taken from the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.

Hesketh Pearson and others have attributed to Sidney Smith the witticism, “I never read a book before reviewing it. It prejudices a man so.” Pierre Bayard attributes it to Oscar Wilde, but may have felt that it was not worth spending time on checking the true source. Wilde was more credible when he joked that his main purpose in writing a review was to write about himself. Wilde suggested six minutes as about the right time for reading a book, although he did not go as far as Disraeli, who claimed that when he wanted to read a novel he wrote one.

I was denounced in 1996 in the Australian by a Dr Perera of La Trobe University “and 65 other academics” for claiming that “the long-rejected policy of assimilation has produced better outcomes for Aborigines” than had the later policies of separation. The phrase in quotation marks did not appear in my Hasluck versus Coombs, although I certainly believed it then to be true, as I do today. It did not appear either in the edited extract published in the Australian. It does not fill one with confidence in their citations from archival material, if they could not quote something accurately from a book or newspaper that had only just been published. Dr Perera was recently working on an ARC-funded research project: “Junction Zones”, on “multiethnic spaces in Australia, Asia and the Pacific”.

Some extreme solutions exclude most books ever written. In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Sir Walter Elliot is “a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation for a distressed one” and the “page at which the favourite volume always opened: Elliot of Kellynch-Hall”. In North-anger Abbey, Catherine excludes books “of real solemn history”, since they contain only “The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars and pestilences in every page; the men all good for nothing, and hardly any women at all”. Alice, when through the looking-glass, wonders, “What is the use of a book … without pictures or conversations?”

Charles Lamb wrote:

“I can read any thing which I call a book. There are things in that shape that I cannot allow for such. In that catalogue of books that are no books … I reckon Court Calendars, Directories … the works of Hume, Gibbon, Robertson, Beattie, Soames Jenkins …”

In Hume and Gibbon, Lamb excluded two of my favourite authors. Lamb had other exclusions, too: “Nothing puzzles me more than time and space; and yet nothing troubles me less, as I never think about them.” I sympathise with him there.

An appealing tactic is to read as widely as you can, but claim to have read even more books than you have done. Some of his friends noted that Aldous Huxley was an assiduous reader of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and held that they could tell which volume he was currently reading, because he would insist in talking to them about subjects starting with the current letter. In Middlemarch Dr Casaubon hints that he not only reads widely, but also understands all he reads and is about to write a major treatise on comparative religion. The book is never written, but foolish admiration for his dedication to learning wins him the heroine, Dorothea; Casaubon has to be killed off by George Eliot before Middlemarch can end in a suitable way.

Although Samuel Johnson always read widely and deeply, he claimed that he rarely read for pleasure: Boswell wrote, “Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, he said, was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.” Here Johnson was surely disingenuous, perhaps fearful of accusations of pedantry?

Reading only a writer’s best books might reduce the problem a little: it would be sensible to read, say, Twelfth Night rather than Two Gentlemen of Verona; but capable critics are often deeply divided as to which are an author’s best works. Some scholars, such as John Carey, consider that Dickens’ best novels are his melodramatic works, such as The Old Curiosity Shop and Oliver Twist, whereas the Leavises admired most his works of social criticism, such as Little Dorrit and Hard Times. A cognate problem is the amount of time we should spend reading reviews and criticisms of books, given not only that reviewers and critics so often disagree, but also that we could be spending that time reading the books themselves.

Bayard on Reading

Few postmodernist scholars are very readable and even fewer of them witty, but Pierre Bayard is both. In the Paris University professor of literature’s How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read his narrator assures us that it is not only possible, but legitimate and highly desirable, to lecture and write about books we have not read, let alone allude to them in conversation. His own academic duties apparently require him to comment on books he has not the time, or the desire, even to skim-read. Bayard holds that

“there is necessarily a choice to be made, given the number of books in existence, between the overall view and each individual book, and all reading is a squandering of energy in the difficult and time-consuming attempt to master the whole.”

Bayard writes that “To be able to talk with finesse about something one does know is worth more than the universe of books”. More plausibly, he claims:

“Being cultivated is a matter not of having read any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system, which enables you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to the others.”

In Keith Waterhouse’s Palace Pier, not mentioned by Bayard, drink-ravaged Chris Duffy has no intention of reading a book whose author he has agreed at short notice to interview at a writers’ festival, but Duffy does intend to read the publisher’s blurb just before the interview. Unfortunately, he loses his copy and no other is available. At the literary session Duffy cannot even remember the name of the author he is to introduce, let alone the title of the book, but he manages to get away with it. Later Duffy finds, or rather steals, the battered manuscript of an unknown novel by Patrick Hamilton, and proposes to pass it off as his own. However, although Duffy does not fear exposure if his pretence goes ahead, he soon decides that Hamilton, like himself a heavy drinker, was largely repeating himself in the newly discovered manuscript. In any case Duffy loses it in a gale on Brighton Pier.

Bayard relates how Musil’s The Man Without Qualities deals with the problem of excess knowledge. An Austrian general decides to read a book a day in order “to claim a certain place in the world of the intellect”, but he discovers that to read all the volumes in just one Viennese library would, at one a day, take ten thousand years. He is consoled by the chief librarian, who assures him, “if you want to know how I know about every book here, I can tell you! Because I never read any of them.” However, under questioning the librarian admits that he reads catalogues. Bayard recommends covers, as well as catalogues, for useful information. Evidently, you can tell a book by its cover.

If we are to continue reading books, Bayard suggests that we skim-read, except perhaps with detective stories, in which we may lose the plot. He especially recommends, perversely some might think, writers such as Proust, with a “habit of drawing associations from the smallest detail”, as suitable for the occasional dip only, “as opposed to actually reading” his books from cover to cover.

Bayard offers other tips. One is to praise the books of authors one meets “without entering into details”, although praise need not be given to the dead. Contrarily, Kingsley Amis once claimed that he liked no other writers, “except for Anthony Powell”. This was a gross exaggeration, since he had several favourite authors, but he was blunt when informing those of whom he had a poor opinion.

Paul Valery was closer to Kingsley Amis than to Bayard in avoiding undue praise. Valery wrote a supposed tribute to Proust on his death that began, “Although I have scarcely read a single volume of Marcel Proust’s great work … I am nevertheless well aware, from the little of Recherche du Temps Perdu that I have read, what an exceptionally heavy loss literature has just suffered …” When Valery succeeded Anatole France on his death as a member of the Academie Francaise, he was more or less bound to deliver a eulogy, but managed to do so without mentioning a single book France had written.

In Illusions Perdues, Balzac’s hero Lucien is told by an experienced publisher how to write three different reviews of an unread book: one favourable, one adverse and the other even-handed. In Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, the two protagonists, William of Baskerville and the mad monk Father Jorge, are both confident that they know what the content is of the long-lost but recently rediscovered second volume of Aristotle’s Poetics, although neither has had the opportunity to read it. Each believes that in it Aristotle praises comedy and laughter, but Jorge fears that, copied and disseminated, it would be even more destructive to the Christian faith than he considers the known works of Aristotle had been. William sees Aristotle as a source of great value to both reason and faith, and would welcome more laughter in the world.

In David Lodge’s Changing Places, an English professor of English initiates Californian academics and literature students into a game in which each contestant names an unread book and scores a point for each of the others who claims to have read it. One of the untenured academics is so keen to win the game that he names Hamlet as a book he has never read. He wins the game, but so shocks his colleagues that he loses his application for tenure. A better game might be to name a book that one has read and to score a point for each opponent who has not read it, but that might defeat Bayard’s purpose, as well as tempting into falsehood.

In Graham Greene’s The Third Man, thriller writer Buck Dexter is confused with another Dexter and invited to lecture in Vienna on James Joyce and the modern novel. Buck Dexter, who only reads westerns, manages without bluff to answer effectively several questions from an academic audience. He gives Grey as his favourite writer, meaning Zane Grey, but is understood as referring to the poet Thomas Gray. Dexter deflates his chairman, who had been trying to protect him from his questioners, by asking him whether he has ever read a book of Zane Grey’s and, finding that he hasn’t, tells him, “Then you don’t know what you are talking about.” James Joyce was a clever choice by Greene, since Joyce reputedly stated that all he expected from his readers was that they confined themselves to reading only books he had written.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs, German professor of philology von Igelfeld is confused with a professor of veterinary medicine, Igelfold. Von Igelfeld arrives at a university in Arizona prepared to lecture on Portuguese irregular verbs, but finds instead that he is expected to lecture to rural folk on dachshunds. His audience appreciates his brevity and his chairman tells him, “Guest speakers are sometimes far too technical for an open lecture like this. You hit just the right note.” Later, back in Europe, von Igelfeld is invited to lecture on Portuguese grammar to passengers on a cruise sailing from Lisbon. His first lecture is attended by only seven passengers, whereas several hundred turn out for a talk on “The Modern Sleuth” by a detective novelist. However, during the next two days the news spreads that he is a bachelor, the only one over twenty-one on board, and most of the passengers are widows and divorcees. For the next lectures there are hundreds of women listening attentively to von Igelfeld and an empty room for the detective writer. McCall Smith may well have had in mind that Proust spent much time and space on analysing Flaubert’s use of the imperfect tense.

Bayard challenges the common distinction between having and not having read a book. With Montaigne as his main authority, Bayard notes how easy it is to forget what we have once read, even carefully. Montaigne claimed that he could not remember much of what he had himself written, let alone what he had read of others. I have sometimes picked up a book I looked forward to reading, only to find a sheet of my own notes next to its back cover. In that case can I say that I had meaningfully read the book? The same occurs, too, with films I completely forgot ever having seen, until I borrow the DVD. I saw the film of The Third Man some years ago but cannot recall whether Dexter’s lecture was included in it, although I remember the Big Wheel in Vienna well enough. Montaigne was also capable of writing again an essay almost identical to one he had already written but forgotten about.

Some of Bayard’s claims may well be merely provocative, but others deserve to be taken seriously. His claim that we need to understand the whole of literature rather than its numberless parts goes back to Plato and beyond, but Aristotle was surely right, not only on the value of laughter but on the impossibility of conceiving a whole without first mastering many of its parts.

The argument advanced by Musil’s librarian that catalogues might be sufficient to enable us to understand the relationship between books is absurd. To know what Hamlet is about is no substitute for reading or seeing the play; and time would surely be better spent on reading or watching one of Shakespeare’s plays than on mastering synopses of each plot. It is highly worthwhile to understand references to Shylock, Bottom or Caliban, but the legitimate claims of breadth are often weaker than those of depth.

What balance should we strike between reading again and again books we value highly as against reading new works? Some books I regularly re-read, such as Herodotus’ Histories, King Lear, Hamlet and Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, but there are several that appear regularly on “100 Best Books” lists that I have never opened.

De Botton and Montaigne

Montaigne made a deep impression on Alain de Botton, in whose The Consolations of Philosophy Montaigne is the dominant figure. Montaigne revealed that, “Many things I would not care to tell any individual man I tell to the public, and for knowledge of my deepest thoughts I refer my most loyal friends to a bookseller’s stall.”

Montaigne was full of contradictions, but nearly always interesting ones. He wrote, “There are more books on books than on any other subject: all we do is gloss each other,” but much of his own life was devoted to reading, and often reading books about books. He argued that “If man were wise, he would gauge the true worth of anything by its usefulness and appropriateness to his life”; and he questioned: “What good did their great erudition do for Varro and Aristotle? Did it free them from human ills? Did it relieve them of misfortunes such as befall a common porter? Could logic console them for the gout … ?” Montaigne condemned “the absurdity of our education: its end has not been to make us wise and good, but learned” and that “We work merely to fill the memory, leaving the understanding and the sense of right and wrong empty”. Yet it is very difficult to teach children formally how to differentiate between right and wrong, and not many teachers can do so; they are better employed in attempting tasks in which they might succeed and, whilst doing so, set practical and personal examples of virtue.

Montaigne encouraged original expression rather than quotation from established thinkers but, on de Botton’s count, he quoted in his published Essays alone Plato 128 times, Lucretius 149 and Seneca 130. Montaigne also declared himself “not prepared to bash my brains for anything, not even for learning’s sake, however precious it may be. From books all I seek is to give myself pleasure by an honourable pastime.” As de Botton comments, “This was nonsense, or rather playful posturing, on the part of a man with a thousand volumes on his shelf and encyclopedic knowledge of Greek and Latin philosophy.”

Montaigne alleged that he included so many quotations, sometimes to “get others to say what I cannot put so well myself because of the weakness of my language, and sometimes because of the weakness of my intellect” and sometimes “to rein in the temerity of those hasty criticisms which leap to attack writings of every kind, especially recent writings by men still alive”. This smacks of false modesty, but may have been an effort to reconcile his practice with his advocacy of originality.

De Botton fears that “rather than illuminating our experiences and goading us on to our own discoveries, great books may come to cast a problematic shadow”. He notes that “the reading public” faces “a mountain of very learned, very unwise books”. He might have added that the mountains of unlearned but also unwise books are even higher.

De Botton finds it “striking how much more seriously we are likely to be taken after we have been dead a few centuries”. Emerson advised in like vein, “Never read any book that is not a year old.” Both are contestable opinions. Few authors are taken either seriously or lightly after they have been dead for even a short time; whilst American authors would have had hard times had Emerson’s advice been followed. However, Emerson also held that writing “a better book” will lead the world to “make a beaten path” to one’s door. We should all be allowed to change our minds.

In Thomas Love Peacock’s Headlong Hall, one character, Mr Foster, believes that “everything we look on attests the progress of mankind in all the arts of life, and demonstrates their gradual advancement towards a state of unlimited perfection”. Against Foster, Mr Escot sees history as a “the great chain of corruption, which will soon fetter the whole human race in irreparable slavery and incurable wretchedness”. A third view, put by Mr Jenkinson, is that our “species, with respect to the sum of good and evil, knowledge and ignorance, happiness and misery, remains exactly and perpetually in status quo”.

Breadth and Depth Again

After several setbacks in seeking entry to Oxbridge to read English, Martin Amis was advised by a “crammer” “to choose about six chaps and know them pretty thoroughly, rather than farting about with a bit of everyone”. Amis fils chose nine authors: Shakespeare, Donne, Marvell, Coleridge, Keats, Austen, Wilfred Owen and Graham Greene, “and possibly old Yeats as well”. This was a defensible choice, but he would still have had to select from the works of several of his chosen authors. In over forty years of teaching history, English, sociology and philosophy of education, I never ended a term or semester without feeling that I had got the balance wrong: either I had failed to “cover” the full syllabus I myself had conceived or accepted, or I had skimmed over it too lightly, instead of stimulating sufficient understanding “from the inside” of individuals, historical or fictional. I face the same problem even now, whenever I try to write an article.

There is no fully satisfactory answer to the breadth and depth problem. That is fundamentally why it is undesirable to impose externally devised curricula and syllabuses on schools and universities, although this may be in some circumstances the lesser evil, and some levels of competence in “basics” may properly be prescribed. There are too many subjects of great value, intrinsic or instrumental, for them all to be fitted in and, also, too much in each subject to be included. Whenever we add something, we must reduce the time given to something else, unless we have been very slack to start with, which is perhaps often the case.

However, as is so often the case, we can rightly reject many proposed solutions as unduly defective, even if we cannot offer a panacea. If we seriously think about what a sensible balance might be between breadth and depth of knowledge derived from books, and from other sources, we are more likely to get it right than if we don’t think about it seriously. This is true also, of course, of the relative time and energy we devote, once we have completed necessary tasks in life, to each of many activities in which we might engage.

Geoffrey Partington’s books include The Australian Nation: Its British and Irish Roots and Hasluck versus Coombs: White Politics and Australia’s Aborigines.

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