Sunday, September 11, 2016
There have been so, so many books published since the first time some hirsute human being scrawled lines and pictures on a cave wall that, obviously, one cannot read them all. Being selective is the key--but how to be selective? The best advice in my estimation is still the one Francis Bacon gave in his famous essay "On Studies:" 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. The key phrase here is "some few."
But that still creates the problem of deciding which are to be tasted, which are to be swallowed and which to be chewed and digested. Some people, for example, would feel that the Harry Potter books are to be chewed and digested whereas I feel they should only be tasted. And what about something such as Fifty Shades of Gray? This one should not even grace (or disgrace) the dinner table. To each, then, to his or her own taste buds.
The only books which should be chewed and digested are those that can be read and re-read--and there are so few of those that one probably doesn't need all 10 fingers and toes to count them. Some of the "classics" or course (and by "classics" I mean those books which have traditionally been considered in the past by scholarly readers to be worthy of study--not the literary period--or, for the purposes of this blog, anything before 1900). But how about the more contemporary novels? How many of those can be read again and still throw up surprises to the reader?
Very few from my perspective. Of course, there are the Hemingway books, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Orwell, etc., i.e. the "standards."
Apart from those standard ones, I only have three modern novels which I have read three times or more: Catch-22, Losing Nelson (to be reviewed in a future post), and A New Finnish Grammar. An interesting book to chewed and digested must provide the reader with something new on almost every page. With Catch-22, for example, one always seems to discover another quirk among its quirky characters and with Losing Nelson I keep learning new things about Admiral Lord Nelson, even though I have absolutely no interest in British naval history. In A New Finnish Grammar, I discovered something about the ending that I had missed the first time around
So, in sum, one should use one's time wisely and judiciously and don't waste parts of a life reading only "tasty" books and not "digestible" ones.
A more academic and detailed approach with similar thoughts can be found in Gabriel Zaid's, So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance.