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I recently acquired five new books (by which I mean, five old books) and they have inspired me to be lazy. Not a contradiction in terms! Here are five quotes, one from each of these books on–what else?–books and reading. They represent several different viewpoints: reader, writer, philosopher, critic; and differing temperaments, from the Great Books approach to the love of reading for its own sake. But they are all nifty in their way, and one of them mentions sandwiches.
In response to the question What makes a book great?
“Great books are those which contain the best materials on which the human mind can work in order to gain insight, understanding, and wisdom. Each in its own way raises the recurrent basic questions which men must face. Because these questions are never completely solved, these books are the sources and monuments of continuing intellectual tradition.
“Carl Van Doren once referred to great books as ‘the books that never have to be written again.’”
Adler, Mortimer. Great Ideas from the Great Books. Washington Square Press, 1961.
“The ways in which reading fulfills its aims beyond the immediate verbal encounter are necessarily mysterious. In exploring them we explore, though unscientifically, some of the operations of consciousness itself, especially those having to do with perception and memory. We have to ask not only how we translate a symbolic code, but also what is the effect upon us of the translation process and the translated content? How do we make use of our own experience when we engage a novel? To what extent are we present in the content of what we read? How do we store what we’ve read, and how do we draw upon our reading memory over time? For it is one book we close the covers on today, and quite another after some months or years have passed. The words on the page don’t change, but we do, and our ‘reading’–the experience we had over the duration of our encounter with the book–has the plasticity of any memory.”
Birkerts, Sven.The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Fawcett Columbine, 1994.
“A public that tries to do without criticism, and asserts that it knows what it wants or likes, brutalizes the arts and loses its cultural memory. Art for art’s sake is a retreat from criticism which ends in an impoverishment of civilized life itself.”
Frye, Northrup. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton UP, 1957.
“Fiction seeks out truth. Granted, it seeks a poetic kind of truth, universals not easily translatable into moral codes. But part of our interest as we read is in learning how the world works; how the conflicts we share with the writer and all other human beings can be resolved, if at all; what values we can affirm and, in general, what the moral risks are. The writer who can’t distinguish truth from a peanut-butter sandwich can never write good fiction.”
Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. Vintage, 1985.
“If once in a while the beginning writer does something interesting with language–shows that he’s actually listening to himself and looking closely at words, spying out their secrets–that is sign enough of the writer’s promise. Only a talent that doesn’t exist at all can’t be improved. Usually. On the other hand, if as readers we begin to suspect that the writer cares about nothing but language, we begin to worry that he may be in for trouble. Normal people, people who haven’t been misled by a faulty college education, do not read novels for words alone. They open a novel with the expectation of finding a story, hopefully with interesting characters in it, possibly an interesting landscape here and there, and, with any luck at all, an idea or two–with real luck a large and interesting cargo of ideas. Though there are exceptions, as a rule the good novelist does not worry primarily about linguistic brilliance–at least not brilliance of the showy, immediately obvious kind–but instead worries about telling his story in a moving way, making the reader laugh or cry or endure suspense, whatever it is that this particular story, told at its best, will incline the reader to do.”
Gardner, John. On Becoming a Novelist. Harper & Row, 1983.
This is where the picture of the poet Robert Hass would be if I could get it to load correctly. Good thing words are worth a thousand pictures. Robert Hass said, “Take the time to write. You can do your life’s work in half an hour a day.” (1)
Don’t quibble with the man just because he writes poetry and you write novels. I believe this is true in any case. It is certainly calming: you can do your life’s work in one short, defined block of time. I call that my lunch break. Any other half hours I manage to scrape together are gravy, at least at this point.
Maybe what it really means is not that you can be a successful author, a brand, a best-seller, in half an hour a day. But those things, I hope, are not your life’s work. That involves the slow accretion of words over years, whether you can put half an hour into it or twenty half-hours.
Can I quote Arnold Bennett again? “The supply of time is truly a daily miracle, an affair genuinely astonishing when one examines it. You wake up in the morning and lo! your purse is magically filled with twenty-four hours of the unmanufactured tissue of the universe of your life!” (2)
So there you have it, from fellows who probably have much more than half an hour a day and for whom, I suspect, time runs a little slower than it does for the rest of us. Arnold Bennett, at least, certainly had someone else to do the washing up (3). But never mind. Inspiration does not only come at the altar of art, but often when one has a dish brush in one’s hand.
1. I don’t know where he said this originally, but I found it on The Writer’s Almanac.
2. From How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day, copyright 1910 by George H. Doran Company but owned by me in a lovely yellowy paperback edition by the Cornerstone Library, 1962.
3. I don’t know if one can write 304, 000 words a year (that’s published words, not just scribbly words like the rest of us) and still have time to do the washing up, but this will be the subject of a future post.
Some of my favorite read-alouds: Emily Jenkins’s Toys Go Out and Toy Dance Party; Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck (see if this one doesn’t win the Schneider Family Award); anything by Eva Ibbotson; Trenton Lee Stewart’s Mysterious Benedict Society; Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (I do a creditable Sara Crewe and a truly awful Becky); and Charise Mericle Harper’s Just Grace series.
1. Listen to Tennyson himself read it here. Read along because for some reason the recording isn’t exactly high def.
2. Read the full report here. It’s only 155 pages, and you won’t be sorry you took the time.
“If you must call me a didactic writer, go ahead. I do believe that those of us who have grown up have something of value to offer the young. And if that is didacticism, well, I have to live with it. But when I write a story, it is not an attempt to make children good or wise–nobody but God can do that, and even God doesn’t do it without the child’s cooperation. I am trying in a book simply to give children a place where they may find rest for their weary souls.”
“A Song of Innocence and Experience.” Gates of Excellence.
“The poet’s job is not to tell you what happened, but what happens: not what did take place, but the kind of thing that always does take place.” -Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination
Frye isn’t just talking about poets here. His subject is all of literature, and he’s especially concerned with the question he asks on the first page: “What good is the study of literature?”
It’s worth asking, as it’s worth asking what the good of any sort of study is, and I won’t pretend to have the answer. I will, however, post other people’s ideas on the subject from time to time, as well as other quotations about reading and writing, many of them from nice old books like this one (Indiana University Press, 1964, although my copy is from 1971). There is something about the glue in the binding of these old paperbacks that makes you feel confident that they, at least, will last when the e-hordes have overrun every available copy of your favorite Scholastic Book Club titles.
Another quotation from Frye, because after all I can open this book as many times as I like and it will never fall apart: “Writers don’t seem to benefit much from the advance of science, although they thrive on superstitions of all kinds. And you certainly wouldn’t go to contemporary poets for guidance or leadership in the twentieth-century world.” Of course, he was thinking of Ezra Pound.
So which poets can we go to for guidance in the twenty-first-century world? I know a lot of teen readers who would go to Ellen Hopkins.