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/