A small handful of my critics, who plainly regard mere religious disagreement as insufficient and who, consequently, seek grounds to support comprehensive and total disdain for at least some of those whose theology they reject, like to point in my case to my apparently safe and old tastes in literature, art, drama, and music.
In Rome right now, I’m definitely wallowing in (and thoroughly enjoying) the old and the classical. So perhaps it’s time for a brief thought on the matter.
First of all, do I prefer old over contemporary? In a sense, no. I constantly read, watch, and listen to new things. Given the choice, though, I’ll often read something older — Dickens or Tolstoy, say, or Dante or Homer or Goethe, or Milton or Shakespeare — over the current New York Times bestseller. Why? I’ll stick with books to illustrate:
If I were to read 400 books a year — that’s well over a book every day, week in and week out, and were to do so for seventy years, from age 20 to age 90, I would have read 28,000 books over the course of a lifetime.
I’ve never come close to that pace, and I read a very great deal. Have you?
There are, on average, more than 290,000 books published annually in the United States alone.
In other words, over a lengthy life of virtually impossible book-reading, one would be unable to read the complete annual output of the United States alone.
Now, to a reading fanatic such as I, this is profoundly depressing. (I’m relieved to know that death isn’t the end!)
But it demonstrates that even the most zealous and dedicated reader must choose.
And it’s probably best to have criteria for the choice, rather than simply choosing randomly.
So obviously, I eliminate whole categories. I ignore all or virtually all cookbooks, chess treatises, manuals of carpentry, Harlequin romances, autobiographies of hockey players, and books on colloquial Tibetan.
But there will still remain vast numbers of books of history, biography, language, art, philosophy, science, and literature — to say nothing of entertaining mysteries, satires, poetry anthologies, etc., that, in an ideal world, I would love to read.
It really is depressing.
One way of filtering is to pay attention to what others are saying. I’ve found many a gem at the recommendation of a friend.
Another different or complementary way is to give preference to those books that have appealed to many people (whether a popular audience or in a specific niche) for a prolonged period of time. This eliminates fads and passing enthusiasms. Some works of genius can be forgotten, for a while at least (the music of J.S. Bach is an excellent illustration of that), but most of what’s written and produced fades away over time because, however fashionable it may once have been, it lacked staying power. Most classical music is just okay. Most older operas were never really good and probably don’t deserve revival. Most books written today, like most books written a century ago or in the Middle Ages or in antiquity, are forgettable. And, with the passage of time, those books will largely be forgotten.
It’s a sifting process, and, as I only get a chance during my brief stint in mortality to sample a small portion of the human output, I would like to concentrate on things that have — to coin a perfectly original phrase — stood the test of time. Shakespeare, Maimonides, Milton, Virgil, al-Ghazali, Dostoevsky, Austen, Goethe, Mencius, Dickens, even Hesse and Mahfouz and Kafka and Kazantzakis. These have been around long enough that most of their onetime competitors have dropped away. They’re plainly worth a look.
And anybody who thinks that such writers are “safe” — Shakespeare safe? — hasn’t read them with sufficient care.
Of course, I really enjoy a good mystery, too. And more than a few contemporary or recent novels.
Do I seek safety? No. Hardly.
I’ve always loved the quotation from J. P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country,” he said. “They do things differently there.”
Quite so. You run more risk of running into things that question your assumptions by reading older works than by reading authors who tend to share the basic assumptions and unquestioned attitudes of your own time, who largely reflect your face in their mirror.
Do I think that a book that has been read and venerated and loved and commented upon for a century, to say nothing of three thousand years, is likely to be better than any given random choice from among this year’s approximately 2.2 million published titles worldwide? Yes. Indeed I do. (And I would include the scriptures within that group, on purely secular grounds, ignoring their religious content for purposes of argument.)
Guilty as charged. Sort of.
Posted from Rome, Italy