What & how to read

Never judge a book by its contents, I was reminded the other day, by one of my worthy acquaintances. There is much wisdom in that. People buy books because they are interested in the topic. They are fools. They buy books by fools.

The intelligent reader will first look about, to discover which authors, or more immediately which singular author, might be worth reading on the topic in question; or on any topic at all. Look for primary sources, for “classic accounts,” ignoring what is “up to date,” and therefore very dated. Laugh at the credentials of specialized “experts.” If an author does not have, in addition to his area of known expertise, a broad general education, and many other specific interests, then he is worthless. His account of his own subject will be facile, narrow, thin. One risks being poisoned by him.

And be sure to avoid “popular” writers, especially in the sciences. These people are journalists — sludge pumpers, pointing their hoses. Professionally giddy. The moment you detect the “upbeat” tone, toss the book in the fire; or on your woodpile for the winter months ahead. (Not nearly enough books are incinerated these days.) Nothing exposes an author quicker than this tone of false advertising. Read carefully: the first sentence will usually be enough to secure a conviction.

Rather, as when learning to swim, get right in the water. Dive in primary sources first, leaving the secondary until after you are dead. Far more can be gained by struggling with a “hard” author, who disappears below surface sometimes, than getting coated by a “hoser.” Read, and drive through the obstacles; do not be slowed by dictionaries. Those may be consulted when you read the book again. For the book not worth re-reading was never worth reading to begin with. Let yourself grow, and experience the joy that comes with return to an old favourite, with an understanding less murky than before. For life and letters are woven, and will weave, in the graceful pattern.

Currite ducentes subtegmina, currite, fusi. …

Know that you don’t know. Never forget that you don’t know it. Keep remembering what you don’t know, and learn to appreciate it. A time may come when you do know a little. Wait for it. …

This, anyway, is what I tell students when I have any: don’t waste your time. Ask stupid questions. They are the only questions worth asking, yet moderns always sneer at them. Wait patiently for the answers to grow. Let the matter of a great author unfold, and meanwhile sing the words and rhythms. (Of course you must, like the plague, avoid authors with no poetry in them.) If you can’t at first, then by self-training, make yourself ever more naïve, and receptive. Listen with both ears and both eyes, and all the other fifteen senses enumerated by the mediaeval inquirers. (More on this some time.) Best to read with your lips moving, mentally pronouncing, as an actor learning his lines. Add a few plausible gestures. For you will never master what you haven’t taken in; and only so much will fit through your eyeballs.

Languages are important! Every author speaks a different one.

Many different styles of poetry have been discovered. The Summa, for instance, is in one style; the Divina Commedia in another. Each genre has its own perfections; its own peculiar means of guidance. Drift from one to another for range.

As I insist, this applies even to novels (which are a poor substitute for tales). A good novelist, for instance, will spend the first thirty pages seeming to shake you off. For what can be picked up at half attention, isn’t worth having; and “light reading” can be left to float away, like a bad gas. It will prove unchaste. And I do not mean by that, only lubricious, for the scent will spread through every moral layer. Read what is clean. In anything too easy, suspect a trap.

True love is hard; true love is enduring. This much at least can be known.

Bear constantly in mind this motto, taken from that fine Swiss perfesser of Germanistik, Emil Staiger (1908–88), exquisite commentator on Goethe and others. By the grace of God I first encountered it when still young (in the front of Albin Lesky’s enthralling history of pagan Greek literature); and by a further grace soon realized that it was entirely and unanswerably true:

“The organs of recognition, without which no true reading is possible, are reverence and love. Knowledge cannot dispense with them, for it can grasp and analyse only what love takes possession of, and without love it is empty.”