More Book Log

It's an interesting discussion, one that complements Gibbon's endless accounts of his studies. There are many different approaches to selecting things to read.

In selecting books to read, many people  are content to employ  The Random Walk method of my childhood, when I was set loose, without guidance, in a library to prowl on my own. This method has the advantage of finding hidden treasures, but it's a bit like digging for gold, without any knowledge of what gold is and where it can be found, in a vacant lot. You're more likely to find old soup cans, dog excrement, and sodden rotting copies of the shopper insert in the daily newspaper.

There is a certain pleasure, a thrill if you like, in stumbling across a book you would never read by choice.  I was once giving a lecture series at James Patrick's college in Ft Worth.  I had made the mistake of taking only serious books with me, and I was not tempted by the television in my apartment. Rooting around, I found a lot of pop novels left by previous inhabitants, and one of them--a Perry Mason--I picked up with a mixture of indifference and dread.  I was not as bad as I expected, and I have since read perhaps two dozen.  He's a wooden writer, and the early installments are pretty mechanical, but Gardner was a lawyer and he could figure out human motivation.

Once at a beach house we were renting, I picked up a copy of Stephen King's Misery--de nomine de facto.  Never again.  Friends who are random readers are forever lending or giving me books.  In the case of Mark Kennedy, who has excellent taste, I am usually grateful and read the books, but I have friends who read tons of second and third rate stuff, and the only criterion is whether or not the book fits their political ideology.

At the other end of the spectrum from the Random Walkers is the disciplined study of a set of classics. This is fine for Students--and some of us remain students forever--but it is a bit regimented for the likes of most people.  About half my reading, even at this late stage of the game, is as a Student.  Even when I started rotting my mind on detective fiction, I soon conceived a plan, first to understand the genre and figure out what was so appealing about it, and then, to be able to write in that vein.  I could not help myself.

While I go back and forth between the first two approaches, I mainly choose books on the basis of persons, that is, on the basis of what I know of the writers or recommendations from people I trust. For example, while I would never in a million years pick up anything written by a contemporary New Yorker writer like Adam Gopnik, I would, if I were visiting Ray Olson, at least--as Leopold Tyrmand used to say of his half-hearted attempts to read books, "I don't have to actually read a book. I just open it up and sniff. I have a very good nose!" If big is good, then he was right."

Leopold, a very clever man, also had worked for the New Yorker under the editor he invariably referred to as Mr. Shawn.  I had grown up on the New Yorker, which both my father and my Communist piano teacher subscribed to.  By about 1950 I was enjoying the ads and within a few years the cartoons:  A battered and bloodied fighter is getting refreshed by his manager, who is saying, "Don't quit now.  The sight of you is beginning to nauseate him."  I read Thurber's memoir, The Years with Ross, which lead me to read, in addition to a lot of Thurber, Alexander Woolcott and Dorothy Parker--I still have a first (probably only) edition of her book of verse, Sunset Gun.

I am only observing, not recommending, but at some point before I turned 21 I had repudiated the idea of just reading most books just for the heck of it, or because the title intrigued me, or the subject piqued my curiosity. When I say, I preferred to concentrate on the classics, I do not mean simply that the best Greek and Roman literature is worth reading over and over, but also that in most areas of study, there are books that have defined a field and stirred the imagination. People keep asking me about current historians of ancient Rome, and I ask them, first, have you studied your Livy, Sallust, Tacitus, Cassius Dio, Ammianus Marcellinus? If they answer is yes, then I ask if they've done their duty by Gibbon, Bury, AHM Jones, Rostovzeff, et al, and if they haven't, then why are they reading Adrian Goldsworthy?

In graduate school, I learned by accident a valuable lesson.  A new book had come out on Roman Satire, a field I had little interest in but when you are in the game you are in the game.  Everyone declared it vastly superior to an earlier book by J Wight Duff, and indeed it was.  Then, however, preparing to teach a course cross-listed with the English Department on classical backgrounds to English literature, I read Dryden on the history of satire.  It was not only vastly better written than both Duff and his replacement, but he had a strong command of the material.  A bit later, I realized that Dryden had in part borrowed his erudition from Isaac Casaubon who, before there were encylopedias, indices, special lexicons, and comparatively few commentaries and critical editions, had mastered the field on his own, like the first European explorers in the New World.  Dryden had one advantage not possessed by Casaubon, and that was his own literary skills and brilliant success as a writer of satire.  Interested in satire?  Now you know where to start.

In reading about Lee and his officers, one cannot do better than to start with Freeman and then read some memoirs of Lee's contemporaries.  I am not telling people not to read new books, but only that they will not be able to evaluate them properly if they have not read the "classics."  A friend not long ago tried to get me to read some new book on the Crimean War.  I replied that I was in the midst of plowing through Kinglake's endless account, filled with personal knowledge of the actors, memos, insights of the period.  I don't know what's been found out since Kinglake, but he had the mind and the opportunity to understand events, one that was not contaminated by a hundred years of nonsense.

Turning to fiction, I invest in writers, not always wisely. As a lad, I read virtually all of Booth Tarkington, a writer for whom I maintain considerable affection. I also read nearly all of Sinclair Lewis, which was not a complete waste of time but I could have done better. I haven't seen the film "The Strange One," but I very much liked "End as a Man," a book I do not recognize in online descriptions of it. Willingham did a lot of work on screenplays for films like The Graduate and One-Eyed Jacks. I corresponded him from time to time, since he was a subscriber and donor, and I have been prompted now to get ahold of more of his novels. I ran across a reference to an article about forgotten Southern novelists, and it coupled Willingham with Hamilton Basso. I'd read and thoroughly enjoyed Basso's The View From Pompey's Head, so I may give him another chance

Movies sometimes do introduce us to writers. For example, one of my top ten favorite films is "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers" based on an early novel by Jack Finney. I recently found out that Finney graduated from Knox College, where we sent Chef Garret, and I have ordered 4 novels from ABE. At the same time, I was struck by guilt for only having read three novels of Madison Jones, whom I counted as something of a friend. Mel Bradford always said that he and his allies regarded Madison as the best Southern writer of his generation, though I did bring him round on George Garret. A Cry of Absence is certainly a fine book/

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

12 Responses

  1. Robert Reavis says:

    Thank you Tom. I am reading Demons right now. Honestly I haven’t read a lot of fiction recently but have enjoyed this one and can see why some have found it quite hilarious but also sad in the diminished characters.
    I too enjoyed Lee’d Lieutenants years ago while a young Marine and would recommend the biography as well. Enjoyed Foote’s three volume set about the battles of The Civil Wat too. Just Finished a book on Hitler by Brendan Simms that was worth reading for me because I never studied WWII as much through books as through the popular movies and press accounts etc.
    And of course I always enjoy actual accounts —Lewis and Clark diaries, Log of A Cowboy and some local history about a man who was a federal marshal and also the local blacksmith in the early founding and establishment of my hometown in Oklahoma.
    Enjoy the break and decent weather in S.C.,its extremely cold, cloudy and windy here.

  2. George Bagby says:

    Oddly enough, I am re-reading Crime and Punishment and enjoying it as I have never before. Demons (Devils, The Possessed) has long been my favorite of Dostoevsky. Have you read Joseph Frank’s volumes about Dostoevsky? He is worth your time.

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Why would anyone want to read (much less have time for) a five volume biography on a Russian novelist? Time is running out, not just for old geezers but for boys and girls in their teens. Imagine you are having an eye test. Let’s see, do I read Aristotle or Joseph Frank. Aristotle. Trollope or Joseph Frank. Trollope. Raymond Chandler or Joseph Frank. Chandler.

    If one is condemned to be writing a paper or book on Dostoevsky, one has to consult the more authoritative sources, but apart from school assignments, I don’t know why anyone need write about Dostoevsky, when the author exists and left behind so much written, when there are historians of the period and contemporary writers to give a proper context. And, frankly, since no one who cannot read a writer in his original language is entitled to an opinion, those who wish to express a strong opinion on a Russian writer have a long row to hoe.

    Speaking personally, I admire Dostoevsky but rarely read him. I have learned one Slavic language and I studied a little Russian, but I could devote the rest of my life to the study of Russian and still not be justified in pronouncing an opinion on a Russian writer. Thus I have to be content with translations and cannot ever be certain that I am really getting the point.

    Years ago, I was entertaining a married couple. One was a fiction writer and good friend, and his wife was publisher of one of my books. When I gave the argument, my wife–a lovely person and good friend–asked in an angry tone about a book on Dostoevsky she had published by someone I knew and respected but did not know that he did not know Russian. “Are you saying that — should not have written his book. I gave her an honest answer, and she stormed off into the kitchen, where my wife was making dinner, and declared I was impossible. Calming down from her towering rage, she returned to the living room and asked her husband to tell me how wrong I was, but he–not unexpectedly, because he knew some German and Japanese–confirmed what I had said, even though he was a good friend of the author in question.

    A few years later, I was invited to an editorial dinner for the editors of a Marxist journal (Telos), and one of the younger men, a political theorist, decided to ridicule Christian Meier’s view of Thucydides. I asked how much Greek he had under his belt, and he said “None.” In that case, I explained, he did not have the right to express an opinion on either Christian Meier or Thucydides. In anger he turned to one of the senior men, a professor of German, and asked him to refute me. The professor, however, said he would be equally annoyed by someone commenting on Goethe without having a degree of fluency in German.

  4. Kellen Buckles says:

    As a person 5 months older than Dr Fleming, but one who got a late start, I definitely am happy to have the guidance of someone I trust to omit the chaff. Currently reading “With Fire and Sword”, I have Tom Lea’s “The Wonderful Country” on deck – suggested by Tom (or Judge McGaughey) on Jack’s FB. An itinerant friend gave me Freeman’s 4-volume Lee last month – 1st edition. The same friend randomly gave us Rebecca West’s “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon” several years ago; her insights into Yugoslavia based on her lengthy inter-war journey open up the history of the Balkan’s and its oppression by the Ottoman’s and other factions. Berdyaev’s “Dostoevsky” ca 1922 is a great explanation of FD’s novels and religion; I wonder how a non-Russian (Frank) presents that Orthodox focus on redemptive suffering.

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Kellen, I haven’t read Berdyaev’s “Dostoevsky” but, like him or hate him, he is a writer worth reading, whatever the subject.

    Both Judge Jack and I recommended Tom Lea. West’s book is a masterpiece, the only book of its kind that I know of on any subject. She was a journalist and an amateur on the entire subject of Balkan history, but she listened to people on each side. Everyone I know “over there” respect and admires Black Lack, Grey Falcon.

  6. Robert Reavis says:

    I once laughed at this piece of pedantry that said a book cannot be read well in translation. Mark Van Doren has a decent essay on The Uses of Translation in his book The Happy Critic where he gets rather impatient with the assertion as did your house guests in the example above. No Greek, no Hebrew, no Bible. Or om the other side ,no Ezra Pound no discovery of Li Po. No Constance Garrett no Raskolnikovs. Or that the only way literature has influenced or exerted its power is through its own native tongue. Or by commentary of scholars. Shakespeare for example should not have tried his hand at Julius Caesar Or Antony and Cleopatra because North’s Plutarch is the only Plutarch he could read.
    But over the years I have taken your assertion more seriously and think it deserves to be defended. The loss of Latin and Greek has been a tremendous loss and the classics a incalculable loss because of the loss of those languages. I still believe that readers can enjoy translated literature and should enjoy it but a deeper understanding of it does requires more and we should expect more from our scholarship than we do today and at the very least an understanding of the language. And I appreciate you for insisting upon it.


  7. Allen Wilson says:

    Years ago, when I was unspeakably stupid enough to study some Egyptian Hieroglyphics enough to read them to a degree but then also find out the hard way just how hard it is to do that, I was astonished by how much better a simple tale like The Tale of the Two Brothers was in the original than in the horribly dry translation. I don’t know which is worse, studying the hieroglyphs or reading that unspeakably dull, dry, boring English. Either way, that was when I learned just how much can be lost in translation.

  8. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Samples included in Oakeshott’s review of “Afterthoughts” and “Aphorisms”:

    ‘How many of our day dreams would darken into nightmares if there seemed any danger of their coming true’;

    ‘There are two things to aim at in life: first, to get what you want; and, after that, to enjoy it. Only the wisest of mankind achieve the second.’

    ‘When elderly invalids meet with fellow-victims of their own ailments, then at last real conversation begins, and life is delicious.’

    ‘People say life’s the thing, but I prefer reading.’

    ‘I like to walk down Bond Street, thinking of all the things I don’t desire.’

    ‘I might give my life for my friend, but he had better not ask me to do up a parcel.’

  9. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    A few more samples:

    ‘Most people sell their souls and live with a good conscience on the proceeds.’

    ‘When people come and talk to you of their aspirations, before they leave you had better count your spoons.’

    ‘If with an excess of interest you peer into the lives of others, what you will probably find is that you will have to pay their debts.’

    I am going to see if these two books are still available.

  10. Raymond Olson says:

    Mr. Van Sant–To find some, if not all, of the aphorisms that Oakeshott quoted, look for All Trivia, which collects four collections of Logan Pearsall Smith’s witticisms, which he called “pieces of moral prose”.

  11. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Thank you Mr. Olson. I found it. That is by Logan Pearsall Smith. The other book, Aphorisms, is by Francis Herbert Bradley. I could not find anything like that by him so far.

  12. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    One can find abundant books to read by reading Oakeshott’s book reviews. I just purchased the Kindle version of R.G. Collingwood’s The Principles of Art. Says Oakeshott:

    This is not the sort of book that has to be recommended with the qualification that the hard labour entailed in reading it will be rewarded in the end; the reader is rewarded on every page. If there is anyone who, because of the nonsense he has been obliged to read, doubts whether a philosopher can talk sense about art, let him read this book. It has something to offer anyone interested in literature or art; it is a book in which, for example, anyone engaged in the study of literature in a University will find illumination. And it is a book which anyone who can take pleasure in a profound and critical piece of philosophical thinking will find a delight.