Skip to comments.Does anyone want to be "well-read?"
Posted on 04/21/2011 2:43:04 PM PDT by Borges
"Death disports with writers more cruelly than with the rest of humankind," Cynthia Ozick wrote in a recent issue of The New Republic.
"The grave can hardly make more mute those who were voiceless when alive--dust to dust, muteness to muteness. But the silence that dogs the established writer's noisy obituary, with its boisterous shock and busy regret, is more profound than any other.
"Oblivion comes more cuttingly to the writer whose presence has been felt, argued over, championed, disparaged--the writer who is seen to be what Lionel Trilling calls a Figure. Lionel Trilling? "Consider: who at this hour (apart from some professorial specialist currying his "field") is reading Mary McCarthy, James T. Farrell, John Berryman, Allan Bloom, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Edmund Wilson, Anne Sexton, Alice Adams, Robert Lowell, Grace Paley, Owen Barfield, Stanley Elkin, Robert Penn Warren, Norman Mailer, Leslie Fiedler, R.P. Blackmur, Paul Goodman, Susan Sontag, Lillian Hellman, John Crowe Ransom, Stephen Spender, Daniel Fuchs, Hugh Kenner, Seymour Krim, J.F. Powers, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Rahv, Jack Richardson, John Auerbach, Harvey Swados--or Trilling himself?"
I read through this list with dismay. I have read all but two of those writers, love some, and met five. Yet I know with a sinking feeling that Ozick asks the correct question. Who at this hour is reading them? Paul Goodman, whose books so deeply influenced and formed me? Edmund Wilson, a role model? James Farrell, whose naturalistic Studs Lonigan evoked a decade of Chicago life? Mailer, who boasted he had beaten all of his contemporaries?
How many of them have you read? Some, I suspect, but they belong to your past. Most of you will have read Ginsberg's "Howl," but how much more of his poetry? I have his collected poems on my shelf, but don't care to take them down. Whitman's poems, on the other hand, are at the side of my chair and I read one every morning. I have every one of Edmund Wilson's books, in the sublimely uniform Farrar Strauss & Giroux editions. Who cites him? Susan Sontag? Remembered for defining Camp.
The occasion for Ozick's sad litany was her review of the letters of Saul Bellow, the one figure among all those contemporaries she believes is still read and will endure. For the same magazine many years ago, James Atlas wrote an argument that the search for the Great American Novel can end, because Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March is that book.
Yes, Saul Bellow is still read, and I am still reading him, and I confess I have no plans to return to any of the other authors on her list in whatever time I have remaining. I have, however, recently started reading The Ambassadors by Henry James for the third time. Soon I plan my third journey through Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, another author I believe will endure.
I have always read for pleasure. I once thought I might be a professor of English, and made it through one year of PhD study at the University of Chicago before recognizing that film criticism had captured me full time. I was not congenitally a good student, but I was influenced by my teachers as role models. In graduate school at Illinois I had one of the great Shakespeare scholars, G. Blakemore Evans, general editor of the Riverside Shakespeare. I'd read Julius Caesar and Macbeth in high school, and then not another word until I entered his classroom. It was clear Evans knew Shakespeare and loved him. Visiting his office, so filled with musty volumes, I was captured by the romance of his occupation, started reading Shakespeare with a passion and never stopped--always using my worn-out Riverside edition, although I have three or four others.
I've written before about the mentor of my undergraduate years, Daniel Curley, he of the corduroy pants, Sears boots and rucksack. In English 101 he assigned us Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, James, Forster, Cather, Wharton, Joyce, Hemingway. I still read all of them. In 1960, he told us, 'What will last of Hemingway's work are the short stories and The Sun Also Rises.' Half a century later, I would say he was correct.
My first exposure to Henry James was the short story "The Real Thing." I thought no one had ever written sentences so obdurate and baffling. They had the fluency of a crossword puzzle. By the time I arrived at The Ambassadors, I was beginning to catch on. His sentences are a labyrinth of diffident but precise observation. In their construction is the creation of character; in their reluctance to boldly state something, we feel the reality of what goes unsaid.
Having read Great Expectations under some duress in high school, I went through seven years of college without ever encountering Dickens again. It was in about 1980 that I signed up for the Folio edition of Dickens, picked up Nicholas Nickleby, and was hooked. No one is more compulsively readable. But I had to come to that myself. Oddly, I started sooner on Trollope. "He is such a consolation," Curley told me one day in a London pub. "During the London Blitz, Trollope enjoyed an enormous popularity." Where should I start? I asked. "Oh, with the Barsetshire novels, I should say."
That's how I've done my reading: Haphazardly, by inclination. I consider myself well read, but there has been no plan. Reading Cynthia Ozick's article brought me up short: I realized I knew almost every writer she was referring to, and I realized they were no longer read. In deciding to begin this piece with the list of all the names in its second paragraph, I realized I would probably alienate many readers. I decided that was all right. This would only be of interest to those who knew a name or two.
All right, then. Bellow has lasted and may continue to last. Setting aside living writers, who is still read? I speak of considerable writers, not potboilers. Dickens, George Eliot, Austen and Trollope, and then some people get to Mrs. Gaskell. Dostoyevsky, Chekhov and Tolstoy. Kafka. Balzac, Flaubert, Stendhal and Hugo. Poe. Mark Twain. James and Wharton. The big four Americans of the first half-century, Cather, Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald. The smaller Americans, Chandler, Steinbeck, Hammett. John O'Hara? Not so much. Sinclair Lewis? Not at all. Nabokov. From Britain, Conrad, Evelyn Waugh, Greene, Forster. Anthony Powell, Iris Murdoch, Virginia Woolf, Orwell, Wodehouse. From France, Georges Simenon endures and Camus hangs on. From South America, Borges and Marquez.
I do not mean to make a list. Many names and entire nations are missing. You will find those writers you enjoy, and value them. I have been in a little discussion recently about how readable Beckett's plays are. Every month or so someone pops up who has discovered Willa Cather and fallen under her vision. There are certain books that are milestones in my reading. I've been going through the 12 volumes of Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time again. Later this year I will again pick up Paul Scott's The Raj Trilogy. On my shelf The Cairo Trilogy by Mahfouz is waiting.
There is no pattern. My only goal is to enjoy reading. I learn that he average American teenager spends 17 minutes a weekend in voluntary reading. Surely that statistic is wrong. Do they mean reading of "serious" novels? I would certainly count science fiction, graphic novels, vampires, Harry Potter, newspapers, magazines, blogs--anything. Just to read for yourself for pleasure is the point. Dickens will come later, Henry James perhaps never.
At the end of the day, some authors will endure and most, including some very good ones, will not. Why do I think reading is important? It is such an effective medium between mind and mind. We think largely in words. A medium made only of words doesn't impose the barrier of any other medium. It is naked and unprotected communication. That's how you get pregnant. May you always be so.
I’ve enjoyed Paradise Lost Immensely.
Um, those are fairly popular writers who can be found in abundant stock at just about any chain book store. Foster Wallace is huge with hipsters as well as Literati. ‘The Dead’ might be the best short story ever written in English. There’s nothing rambling or incomprehensible about it. And even Ulysses does indeed have a point. You just have to know what he was after.
Once upon a time, “well-read” meant Plato and Cicero.
Now, most of what people refer to as “great” literature seems to come out of the 19th and 20th centuries, which is when the world began to lose it’s damn mind philosophically.
For me, well-read means John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, Montesquieu, Frederich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell, and Walter Williams.
(I also love C.S. Lewis).
Heh, I haven’t read her at all. They’ll be a Cervantes, but it’s not her.
You should add Evelyn Waugh, Walter M. Miller, G.K. Chesterton, and Tolkein to your list.
The rise of English Lit. as a field of study coincides with patriotic gestures during the two World Wars when Classical Studies - being so associated with stuffy German Philology Professors - became unfashionable.
There are plenty of flaws in the series, including plot holes big enough to hold a train, however, Rowling is phenomenally gifted in the area of character creation. The characters in Harry Potter, even the minor ones, are remarkably well rounded and deep. They have histories, motivations, fears and desires that are consistent and create a compelling world. In the novels, you believe the characters are alive. In comparison, Tom Clancy characters tend to be very flat and wooden. The plots are well thought out, but the characters themselves seem to simply be vehicles for carrying a plot, not living beings.
In this respect, Rowling went back to the older tradition of long novels in which large passages were written just for the sake of character development. Modern novels tend to get away from that, as most readers tend to be more action oriented and expect many successions of quick scenes.
Course, I have odd tastes. Philip Dick is one of my favorite authors, and much of his writing came out of his paranoid schizophrenia.
thanks, will do. I am familiar with Tolkien, but not the others you mention.
If PKD was any sort of stylist he would be hugely regarded. He had all these great ideas but one of the crudest prose styles imaginable. And he was terrible at naming characters (Rick Deckard, Roy Batty)!
Just because you can find it in the bookstore doesn’t mean anybody’s actually buying it. Modern hipsters, much like their 40s counterparts, are dinks, if I’m going to pay attention to their taste at all it will be as negative examples; and suicides are morons. “The Dead” might be good I don’t remember anything about it, most of the rest of Dubliners is crap, and Ulyses has no point at all. I don’t care what Joyce was after, much like I don’t care what the guy slurring at the bar is after. I have a very simple rule when reading, if I think “what the $%^& is this idiot blathering on about” once a page it’s a bad book. When I was suffering through Joyce in school I would think that about once a paragraph, bad writer.
Yep, I’m well red...with an occasional white. :P
Romeo + Juliet, Midsummer’s Nights, Othello, Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Henry V, Julius Caesar. I think that’s it.
Oh, and most of his poetry. His poetry is underrated.
A Christmas Carol, Tale of Two cities, David Copperfield and that’s it, all in the last year or so.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, both those books. And that’s it.
For me well read really means nothing, most of the folks who talk about it are ego stroking. At least some of the ones you list off I can respect.
You are absolutely right about Rowling’s plot holes.
In his review of Book 7 (Deathly Hallows), Christopher Hitchens sums it up well: “The repeated tactic of deus ex machina (without a deus) has a deplorable effect on both the plot and the dialogue.”
The Potter books are probably not great literature, but they are still a blast to read.
That's true, and they meant that they were read in the original Greek and Latin, respectively.
Also, your point about Rowling actually being today's Cervantes is a decent one. Rowling isn't anywhere close to being the greatest living writer, a honor that I believe would likely go to either McCarthy or Roth, I can't name a single good, let alone "great" novelist under the age of 60 - although I'm sure many would argue Jonathon Franzen is great.
In SF circles PKD is hugely regarded. He’s the first SF guy in the Library of America, got an award named after him, and he’s the most filmed guy in the genre (though most of the movies made from his stuff are crap). He might not be regarded at all by the literati, but none of the rest of SF is either. Which might explain why SF fans have such low regard for the literati, they hated us first.
All this and no Jack Vance?
... Perhaps there is a difference between being well read and reading well.
If the crap they made me read in High School was any example (”The Dollmaker”, “Siddhartha”...) They can keep it.
Now a little James Schmitz, or Heinlein, I can do with some of that.
Let me guess: Nabakov's Pale Fire and Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury are NOT your favorite books...
Right on both counts.
What’s your favourite Heinlein book? We might as well talk about good literature rather then the list that Ebert spewed.
Do you consider Don Quixote to be a good book?
He laughed, and laughed, and laughed. Then his mouth fell off.
I enjoyed Don Quixote. I read a translation, of course, since I don’t read Spanish. But it was a fun book.
I regard Huck Finn as the greatest literary work that I have ever read. It made a huge impact on me.
I read Screwtape Letters (C.S. Lewis) every year or so.
Only one book has changed my life (The Bible).
Heinlein wise, Id have to say that my favorites for fun were the series starting with Number of the Beast, but the original (non movie bastardized) Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress are great stuff.
I suspect many here would agree.
Patrick O’Brian for the great Aubrey-Maturin novels.
There are no bad stories in Dubliners. It’s a model of modernist short fiction. Ulysses demands multiple readings. Great writing usually does. When books are published in numerous editions and readily available they extend to more than just the Literati. It’s when they’re out of print or only available in University Press editions when you can make the claim.
Did you like Glory Road?
I liked the Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and ‘To Sail beyond the Sunset.”
The point being that you’ve read the writers he mentions.
What didn’t you like about Pale Fire? It’s drop dead brilliant.
Allan Bloom is the only one I have read of them (”The Closing of the American Mind”).
He’s in the LOA because he’s an important writer conceptually. He’s just a terrible stylist. It’s a shame.
He’s in the LOA because he’s an important writer conceptually. He’s just a terrible stylist. It’s a shame.
He’s in the LOA because he’s an important writer conceptually. He’s just a terrible stylist. It’s a shame.
I think it must've been required reading for high school students in Kansas, back in the 60s, when I was in high school.
We moved a lot and it seemed like every time we moved, the English class at my new high school was just getting around to that book. I hated it and was pi**ed that I had to read it over and over again. The last time we moved, I think it was the third time I was forced to re-read it, I... LOVED IT! Something to be said for repetition, I guess.
I love Kipling. Must read more of him. :)
Everyone’s read Shakespeare, Dickens and Mark Twain.
That is proved by the fact that they appear on his list.
Stalky and Co.
Plain Tales from the Hills
..are a couple of my favorites.
‘alice walker isn’t a real poet’
bless your heart and brain
if you had thrown (crane handy?) Maya Angelou in there with her I would have nominated YOU for a Nobel Prize
I also read a translation of it and it made me laugh but it got monotonous sometimes.
I think genre fiction has replaced the so-called canon literature as far as avid readership. Maybe because there is still a masculine voice; much of the current "literary" fiction is this mushy or angry feminist garbage. These authors are great stylists, but so distorted they're irritating. I'm a woman, BTW, so my opinion has nothing to do with "dead white male" chauvinism.
No there’s plenty of bad stories in Dubliners. Start with An Encounter, as story that’s not only bad but gross. Ulyses only demands to be ignored completely, it’s a stupid book. Just because a book keeps getting published doesn’t mean anybody other than the literati reads it, the literati are just like any other group of super nerds, they keep finding a way to get new members in spite of their lack of sex and new members need new copies of those crappy books. And the literati have the added advantage of controlling school curricula, even if no human being ever again voluntarily reads a single word of Joyce he’s going to keep getting published for at least another 50 years because people will still be forced to read his pap.
I figured this out last night. The literati are the first wave of uber nerds. You’re trekkies. It explains everything really, especially explains why the literati so strenuously thumb their noses at SF/F, because all brands of uber nerds hate all the other brands. Just like the trekkies you obsess on stuff that 99% of the world doesn’t give a rip about, you look down on people that don’t give a rip about your obsession, you think your obsession makes you special, you think it really had a dramatic effect on society, you wear funny clothes, and you even periodically gather together in groups of like minded obsessors. And probably like most uber trekkies (and Jedis, and Ringers, and whatever the heck anime dorks are called) if the literati had gotten laid young enough it all could have been avoided.
I don’t think it was terrible style, I think it was not good for the masses style. But that’s not necessarily bad. Not everybody gets to be Madonna, some people gotta be different. The real shame is how little recognition he got when alive. Even in the SF community people really didn’t start to realize what they had in him until near the end. Just saw they’re remaking Total Recall, at least his kids are making money.
I’M TOO BUSY HITTING THE REFRESH BUTTON ON LATEST POSTS HERE AT FREEP TO BE WELL READ.
I’M NOT YELLING, MY ALL CAPS BUTTON IS STUCK.
I never bothered to pick it up, and don’t see a need to. Poetry is not in my wheel house, a novel revolving around a poem is not something that interests me. If I tried to read it I wouldn’t find it drop dead brilliant, I’d find it to be a book about a poem and the gross over analysis of a poem which I found so irritating in school.
This is part of what I mean when I say people’s tastes vary and that determines what they will and won’t like. If you don’t like poetry a meta-story about a poem is just not going to be something you like, could be the best book humanity has ever or will ever produce, if the topic isn’t to your liking there’s just no reason to pick it up. Gotta know who you are in this world. I’m a guy that find poetry boring and poetry analysis annoying, while I do like meta the meta needs to revolve around something I find at least vaguely interesting for me to care.
Then Chaucer and Rabelais are gross too. Bodily fiction like that has been around for eons. The Greeks had it too. Ulysses is probably the most tightly constructed work of literature since The Divine Comedy. There’s nothing stupid about it. It’s a retelling of The Odyssey using every stylistic mode that Western Culture has seen since Homer. It’s both an Epic on the head of a pin and a summation of Western Civilization since the Greeks.
People can be ignorant of it all they want but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still called Ignorance. Without Joyce, the history of 20th century lit is incoherent. Especially Anglophone Lit. He’s the Literary Einstein.
No ‘literati’ I know thumb their nose at SF. They thumb their nose at bad fiction. Shelley’s Frankenstein and H.G. Wells are very much taught at the school level.
‘Literati’ is just a snotty word for scholar. It’s like calling chemists or physcists ‘Sciencerati’; a facile reduction of an important field of study. Who do you think should make up school curricila for English classes? The local grocer? How about just reading the contents of the best seller list and leave it at that?
The ‘over-analysis’ of the poem itself is part of the joke.
His prose is square as square can be. Please quote a single PKD sentence that’s interesting from a construction or imagery standpoint. He did not use language in any remotely interesting way. You can summarize the content of a PKD novel and still pretty much capture the essence of it. He loses nothing in translation because there is nothing to lose.
Oh and btw...’Pale Fire’ is Science Fiction.
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.