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.

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