Monday, February 28, 2011

On books and hats...

I quoted in my last post from The Joys of Reading: Life's Greatest Pleasure by Burton Rascoe. That is because I am reading this slim little book (185 pages, cloth-bound, falling apart) right now, and enjoying it very much. I think I'm going to blog my way through the book so you can enjoy it, too. It's the sort of book that readers enjoy reading--a book about books and reading, and why reading is worthwhile, and different kinds of reading, and so forth. At the same time, I am most emphatically NOT recommending that anyone search out a copy to buy and read. Some of it is too specific to its time and era to be universally interesting (it's never been reprinted, so far as I can tell).

The book is recent enough that the expressions and sentiments ring very true and sound modern, while it also old enough that the author writes enthusiastically of then-living authors such as Willa Cather and F. Scott Fitzgerald. It makes for fun reading, and gives rise to all sorts of interesting reflections.
Books may fall into neglect. Fashions may shift in that demand for the "continuous slight novelty" we all require to escape monotony or satiety. And good books, even the best books, may be obscured for a while, unread for months, for years, even for centuries.
Literature does not die. It is the self-perpetuating product of an ever-flowering process like life itself; and it is the articulate spirit of life, voicing the hopes, aspirations, the conflicts, the experience, of people, of time and of place--and the best of literature, the literature that endures, is the literature which arouses in the breasts of all literate peoples at all times the emotion of recognition that this book, this poem or this play is something they know, they feel, they have observed, they acknowledge to be true, they have felt or observed, expressed in a language that is clearer, more exact, more comprehensive, or more subtle than is within the average man's power of articulation.

I appreciate the fact that he encourages readers not only to read those books which are classic and worthy, but not to be ashamed to read current literature that is worthy. He also encourages readers to actually read those worthy books, and not just skim them to be able to say "I've read that," as we might buy the latest fashion (or not) in order to make "groupthink" a veritable reality.
It is quite true that a great many people make no further use of books than as a means of keeping up with the fashion. That is to say that, when a book becomes a best seller, they want to get hold of it and perhaps only to skip through it, not out of a love of literature, not out of curiosity even, but merely to be in the swim.

When nearly everybody else seems to have read the book, and to be talking about it, they feel as uncomfortable as if they had on clothes that are last year's and, there out of date. When the Empress Eugenie hats were so much the rage in 1931 that Queen Mary was probably the only living woman who didn't wear one, it was also so much the fashion to read The Good Earth by Pearl Buck that it took more courage than most can muster to resist a desire to buy or borrow it.
Now, with the plethora of book bloggers out there, there is this tendency to want to read what everyone else is reading and talking about. There are challenges that tempt us to read the same kinds of books everyone else is reading. When half-a-dozen of my favorite book bloggers have waxed enthusiastic about a new book, I want to read it too. Sometimes I don't like the books that are enjoying the wave of popularity. I have read a few books that I could have easily dispensed with. But. I have read some wonderful, wonderful books that I would not have known about if I hadn't picked up the chatter about them and hopped on the bandwagon, to mix a few metaphors. I would not willingly have missed The Book Thief, The Thirteenth Tale, or Jayber Crow. If I have to read something like The DaVinci Code once in a while, that's not too high a price to pay for the sake of reading truly great books written by the better authors still living among us.

Burton Rascoe agrees.
The sneer [at those who read currently popular books] is both stupid and vulgar. For the undeniable fact is that the Empress Eugenie hat was so beautifully designed that no woman could but add to her appearance by wearing one, and The Good Earth was so good a novel that no one could help deriving some pleasure, some good, out of even a very superficial skimming of it.


At 1:23 PM , Blogger Paul & Carla said...

Ah, but I typically have a bad experience reading "current" books. The exception is biographies of historical figures; in that genre I've discovered some fabulous authors whom I enthusiastically read every single time they publish.

At 3:44 AM , Blogger Silvia said...

Not only I have bad experiences, I've even gotten into reading books that have compromised my conscience. And The Book Thief is not one of them, actually it's maybe one of the few from the modern books I've been compelled to read that I've liked.

Even The Great Gatsby, which I took from Adler's How to Read a Book list as a classic to read, left me with a bad taste.


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