The Bookish Life. How to read and why
The village idiot of the shtetl of Frampol was offered the job of waiting at the village gates to greet the arrival of the Messiah. “The pay isn’t great,” he was told, “but the work is steady.” The same might be said about the conditions of the bookish life: low pay but steady work. By the bookish life, I mean a life in which the reading of books has a central, even a dominating, place. I recall some years ago a politician whose name is now as lost to me as it is to history who listed reading among his hobbies, along with fly-fishing and jogging. Reading happens to be my hobby, too, along with peristalsis and respiration.
Like the man—the fellow with the name Solomon, writing under the pen name Ecclesiastes—said, “Of the making of many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” So many books are there in the world that no one can get round to even all the best among them, and hence no one can claim to be truly well-read. Some people are merely better-read than others. Nobody has read, or can read, everything, and by everything I include only the good, the beautiful, the important books.
The first question is “How can one tell which books qualify as good, beautiful, important?” In an essay of 1978 called “On Reading Books: A Barbarian’s Cogitations,” Alexander Gerschenkron, a Harvard economist of wide learning, set out three criteria: A good book must be interesting, memorable, and rereadable. This is as sensible as it is unhelpful. How can one know if a book is interesting until one has read it; memorable until time has or has not lodged it in one’s memory; rereadable until the decades pass and one feels the need to read it again and enjoys it all the more on doing so?
Not much help, either, is likely to be found in various lists of the world’s best books. In 1771 a man named Robert Skipwith, later to be Thomas Jefferson’s wife’s brother-in-law, asked Jefferson to compile for him a list of indispensable books. Jefferson obliged with a list of 148 titles, mostly Greek and Roman classics, and some intensely practical treatises, among them a book on horse-hoeing husbandry. The Guardian not long ago published a list of the world’s one hundred best nonfiction books in English, and while nearly every one seemed eminently worthy, one could just as easily add another hundred books that should have been on such a list, and this does not include all the world’s splendid works of fiction, drama, and poetry, and not merely in English alone. In 1960, Clifton Fadiman, then a notable literary critic, produced a work called The Lifetime Reading Plan, a work of 378 pages, which I have chosen never to read, lest it take up the time I might devote to a better book.
Such lists reveal a yearning for a direct route to wisdom. Brace yourself for the bad news: None is available. If one wanted to establish expertise in a restricted field—economics, say, or art history, or botany—such a list might be useful. But for the road to acquiring the body of unspecialized knowledge that sometimes goes by the name of general culture, sometimes known as the pursuit of wisdom, no map, no blueprint, no plan, no shortcut exists, nor, as I hope to make plain, could it.
Bookish, which sounds a bit like Jewish, is the word I use to describe lives that are dominated by books. I grew up in a home proudly Jewish but not in the least bookish. I don’t believe we even had a dictionary in our apartment during the years I was growing up. The only books I can recall are a few volumes of a small-format, dun-colored, red-trimmed Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia that my father acquired through newspaper subscription. Both my parents were well-spoken, my paternal grandfather in Montreal published three books in Hebrew whose cost was underwritten by my father, and my mother was a near genius in her accurate judgment of other people, but reading books takes time, and neither of my parents found time for them.
As a young boy, I didn’t find much time for books, either. Sports were all that interested me, and sports took up all four seasons of the year. I read only the sports pages in the Chicago Daily News, and I read lots of comic books, including classic comic books, which were useful for giving book reports in school. The first book that genuinely lit my fire—no surprise here, it was a sports book—was John R. Tunis’s All-American. So enamored was I of the novel that I took out my first library card so that I could read the rest of Tunis’s sports novels.
The next four years I spent as an entirely uninterested high school student. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, George Eliot’s Adam Bede, a few essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson, all offered as part of the required school curriculum, none of them so much as laid a glove on me. Willa Cather, a writer I have come to admire as the greatest twentieth-century American novelist, chose not to allow any of her novels put into what she called “school editions,” lest young students, having to read her under the duress of school assignments, never return to her books when they were truly ready for them. She was no dope, Miss Cather.
Only after I had departed high school did books begin to interest me, and then only in my second year of college, when I transferred from the University of Illinois to the University of Chicago. Among the most beneficial departures from standard college fare at the University of Chicago was the brilliant idea of eliminating textbooks from undergraduate study. This meant that instead of reading, in a thick textbook, “In his Politics Aristotle held . . . ,” or “In Civilization and Its Discontents Freud argued . . . ,” or “In On Liberty John Stuart Mill asserted . . . ,” students read the Politics, Civilization and Its Discontents, On Liberty, and a good deal else. Not only read them, but, if they were like me, became excited by them. Heady stuff, all this, for a nineteen-year-old semi-literate who, on first encountering their names, was uncertain how to pronounce Proust or Thucydides.
Along with giving me a firsthand acquaintance with some of the great philosophers, historians, novelists, and poets of the Western world, the elimination of that dreary, baggy-pants middleman called the textbook gave me the confidence that I could read the most serious of books. Somehow it also gave me a rough sense of what is serious in the way of reading and what is not. Anyone who has read a hundred pages of Herodotus senses that it is probably a mistake—that is, a waste of your finite and therefore severely limited time on earth—to read a six-hundred-page biography of Bobby Kennedy, unless, that is, you can find one written by Xenophon.
What is the true point of a bookish life? Note I write “point,” not “goal.” The bookish life can have no goal: It is all means and no end. The point, I should say, is not to become immensely knowledgeable or clever, and certainly not to become learned. Montaigne, who more than five centuries ago established the modern essay, grasped the point when he wrote, “I may be a man of fairly wide reading, but I retain nothing.” Retention of everything one reads, along with being mentally impossible, would only crowd and ultimately cramp one’s mind. “I would very much love to grasp things with a complete understanding,” Montaigne wrote, “but I cannot bring myself to pay the high cost of doing so. . . . From books all I seek is to give myself pleasure by an honorable pastime; or if I do study, I seek only that branch of learning which deals with knowing myself and which teaches me how to live and die well.” What Montaigne sought in his reading, as does anyone who has thought at all about it, is “to become more wise, not more learned or more eloquent.” As I put it elsewhere some years ago, I read for the pleasures of style and in the hope of “laughter, exaltation, insight, enhanced consciousness,” and, like Montaigne, on lucky days perhaps to pick up a touch of wisdom along the way.
The act of reading—office memos, newspaper articles on trade and monetary policy, and bureaucratic bumpf apart—should if possible never be separable from pleasure. Twenty or so years ago there was a vogue for speed-reading. (“I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes,” Woody Allen quipped. “It involves Russia.”) But why, one wonders, would you wish to speed up an activity that gives pleasure? Speed-reading? I’d as soon take a course in speed-eating or speed-lovemaking. Yet the notion of speed generally hovers over the act of reading. “A real page-turner,” people say of certain novels or biographies. I prefer to read books that are page-stoppers, that cause me to stop and contemplate a striking idea, an elegant phrase, an admirably constructed sentence. A serious reader reads with a pencil in hand, to sideline, underline, make a note.
Nor, I suspect, is the bookish soul likely to read chiefly on a Kindle or a tablet. I won’t go into the matter of the aesthetics of book design, the smell of books, the fine feel of a well-made book in one’s hands, lest I be taken for a hedonist, a reactionary, and a snob. More important, apart from the convenience of Kindles and tablets—in allowing for enlarged print, in portability if one wants to take more than one or two books along when traveling—I have come to believe that there is a mysterious but quite real difference between words on pixel and words in print. For reasons that perhaps one day brain science will reveal to us, print has more weight, a more substantial feel, makes a greater demand on one’s attention, than the pixel. One tends not to note a writer’s style as clearly in pixels as one does in print. Presented with a thirty- or forty-paragraph piece of writing in pixels, one wants to skim after fifteen or twenty paragraphs in a way that one doesn’t ordinarily wish to do in print. Pixels for information and convenience, then, print for knowledge and pleasure is my sense of the difference between the two.
I have heard many stories of intelligent people deriving much pleasure from listening to books, serious books, on their smartphones or other devices. I wish them joy of it, for I cannot find any. Many years ago a number of my own books were put on something then called “books on tape.” Ordinarily I would have thought this a lovely ego sandwich, walking or driving about the city listening to my own words spoken by a (doubtless) out-of-work actor. On the contrary, I found I couldn’t bear it. This stranger’s reading rhythms were far from the rhythms I had put into my sentences; his pronunciations were sometimes off; listening to him I felt chiefly a sense of intrusion. Besides, listening to someone read, not just one’s own but any serious writing, doesn’t allow one to linger, go back to reread, ponder an interesting passage. Reading and listening to someone else reading are two widely, I should even say wildly, different things.
In the risky generalization department, slow readers tend to be better readers—more careful, more critical, more thoughtful. I myself rarely read more than twenty-five or thirty pages of a serious book in a single sitting. Reading a novel by Thomas Mann, a short story by Chekhov, a historical work by Theodor Mommsen, essays by Max Beerbohm, why would I wish to rush through them? Savoring them seems more sensible. After all, you never know when you will pass this way again.
A great help in leading the bookish life is to recognize that as a reader, you might be omnivorous, but you can never be anywhere near omniscient. The realization removes a great deal of pressure. Some of this pressure derives from the claim of recent years that there is a much wider world than the Western one most of us grew up and were educated in. If one is not to be thought parochial in one’s interests, the argument holds, one is responsible for knowing not Western culture alone but also the cultures of the Far and Near East. Yet when I think of all I haven’t read in or about Western culture, I am perfectly prepared to take a pass on Islam, Hinduism, Shintoism, Buddhism, and the rich store of Chinese Confucian and contemplative literature. These and more will have to wait until I have read Pindar, Terence, Hume’s History of England, Taine, Zola, and a few hundred other such items, not to speak of the books I should like to reread. They’ll have to wait, it begins to look, until the next life, which, I like to think, will surely provide a well-stocked library. If it doesn’t, I’m not sure I want any part of it. Hell of course will have a library, but one stocked exclusively with science fiction, six-hundred-odd page novels by men whose first name is Jonathan, and books extolling the 1960s.
Rereading is a subject on its own. How many books you have read when young seem less impressive when you are older! The books of Ernest Hemingway and Henry David Thoreau are two instances that jump to mind for me. Hemingway’s code of manliness and Thoreau’s plea to simplify our lives both seem so much balderdash, fustian, rodomontade. Ralph Waldo Emerson left me cold as a kid and even colder now. While other books that one was less impressed with when young—Willa Cather’s is my example here—now seem richly complex, deep, indispensable. Some of the best of all books are those one loved when young and finds even better in later life. Marguerite Yourcenar’s novel Memoirs of Hadrian is such a book for me. The frisson afforded by rereading is the discovery not only of things one missed the first time round but of the changes in oneself.
When I was in grammar school, in the sixth grade, our class had a visit from a woman from the Chicago Public Library. She came to inform us, in a sanctimonious voice, that books will “take us to unknown shores, bring us treasures hitherto undreamed of. Yes, boys and girls,” she said, “books are your friends.” Marcel Proust, of all people, would have agreed, with a single proviso. He believed that books were in some ways better than friends. “In reading,” he held, “friendship is suddenly brought back to its first purity.” Unlike with friends, we spend time with books only because we truly wish to be in their company. We never have to ask what they thought of us. Clashes of egotism have nothing to do with the bookish relationship. Perhaps best of all, when we tire of books, unlike tiring of friends, we close them and replace them on the shelf. Friendship with books, Proust felt, though it may be one-way, is nonetheless an unselfish friendship.
Reading may not be the same as conversation, but reading the right books, the best books, puts us in the company of men and women more intelligent than ourselves. Only by keeping company with those smarter than ourselves, in books or in persons, do we have a chance of becoming a bit smarter. My friend Edward Shils held that there were four modes, or means, of education: that in the classroom, that through superior newspapers and journals, that from the conversation of intelligent friends, and that obtained from bookstores and especially used bookstores. The so-called digital age, spearheaded by Amazon, is slowly putting this last-named mode out of business. With its ample stock, quick delivery, and slightly lower prices, Amazon is well on its way to killing the independent bookstore. But the owners of these stores are not the only losers. Readers, too, turn out to be ill-served by this bit of mixed progress that Amazon and other online booksellers have brought.
I have seen used bookstores described as places where you find books you didn’t know you wanted. I recently went into a neighborhood used bookstore just to browse, and came out with two books I hadn’t, until I had them in my hands, known I’d wanted: Lesley Chamberlain’s Nietzsche in Turin and Barry Strauss’s The Battle of Salamis. I regularly make such unexpected discoveries. A few years ago, in another used bookstore, in its classics section, I came upon a book titled Rome and Pompeii by a writer I had never heard of named Gaston Boissier (1823–1908). I opened it, was pleased by the few passages I scanned, and bought it. I have subsequently read two other of Boissier’s books, Roman Africa and The Country of Horace and Virgil, both of which gave much satisfaction. Without coming upon Boissier in a shop, holding his book in my hands, examining it, I should have missed out on a splendid writer.
As you will have gathered, correctly, I am far from a systematic reader. I read only books on subjects that interest me, and my interests tend to rove all over the intellectual and aesthetic lot. These interests tend to come in phases, sometimes resulting in reading binges. Not uncommonly a broad general subject will absorb my interest—the history of Rome, the Austro-Habsburg Empire, the belle epoque—and I find much of my reading devoted to it. Within the last few years, for example, caught up in a passion for all things Roman, I read Sallust, lots of Cicero, a great deal of Livy, some Appian, Polybius, Plutarch, Tacitus, Seneca, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, Edward Gibbon, Theodor Mommsen, Ronald Syme, and more. I read all this not to gain mastery over the subject but for pleasure and what I hope is the occasional insight into human nature across a vast stretch of time that reading about Rome brings. I know no better ways to spend my days.
“I hate to read new books,” William Hazlitt began an essay called “On Reading Old Books.” He closes the same essay with a brief listing of many of the books he would still like to read: Lord Clarendon’s History of the Grand Rebellion, Guicciardini’s History of Florence, the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher, the speeches in Thucydides, Don Quixote in the original Spanish, and more. Reading that list, I immediately feel an intellectual kinship with Hazlitt.
I cannot say that I hate to read new books; since I write a few of them, this would put me in an awkward position. But as one grows older and recognizes that one’s time isn’t infinite, one is more likely to choose to read the three volumes of Mommsen’s History of Rome over the five volumes of Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson, the poetry of Wallace Stevens over that of John Ashbery, the novels of Marcel Proust over those of Jonathan Franzen.
We all live in the contemporary world, but that doesn’t mean that we have to restrict our reading to that world, which is doubtless already too much with us. “The art of not reading is a very important one,” Schopenhauer wrote.
It consists in not taking an interest in whatever may be engaging the attention of the general public at any particular time. When some political or ecclesiastical pamphlet, or novel, or poem is making a great commotion, you should remember that he who writes for fools always finds a large public. A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.
I know of no better advice for taking a pass on just about everything on the New York Times best seller list.
If you happen to be in search of an example of the word “desultory,” allow me to offer my own current reading. On or near my bedside table I have bookmarks in the following books: Paul Johnson’s little book on Mozart, John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, A. J. P. Taylor’s The Habsburg Monarchy, 1809–1918, William Rothenstein’s Men & Memories, 1872–1938, and Robert Burton’s 1,381-page Anatomy of Melancholy. I’ve twice before made a run at Burton’s book, but it now begins to look as if I may have to finish finishing it in the next life. In my bathroom astride the back of the commode sits Ernst Pawel’s The Labyrinth of Exile: A Life of Theodor Herzl, André Maurois’s Byron, and the Journal de L’Abbé Mugnier. (As for reading in the bathroom, one of the highest compliments I have had came from a reader of a magazine I edited when he told me that he took it to the bathroom.) Elsewhere round my apartment, I have bookmarks in studies of Catullus and Alcibiades, a recent biography of Brutus, G. K. Chesterton’s Saint Francis of Assisi, The Reflections and Maxims of Luc de Clapiers, Marquis of Vauvenargues, two slender volumes on Proust by Princess Marthe Bibesco, and Cornelius Nepos’s Lives of Eminent Commanders. If you can make sense of this jumble of subjects, yours is a keener mind than mine.
Which brings me to the clutter that books can bring into a home. Books Do Furnish a Room is a truism as well as the title of the tenth novel in Anthony Powell’s twelve-volume Dance to the Music of Time novel cycle, but it needs to be added that books can also take over a room—and not one room alone. Harry Wolfson, the Harvard scholar and philosopher, is said to have used both his refrigerator and oven to store books. I tell you this so your feelings shouldn’t be hurt if, had you happened to have known him, Professor Wolfson failed to invite you to dinner.
I have myself twice sold off large numbers of my books. I had hoped to keep my own collection of books within respectable bounds—down, say, to the two or three hundred of the books I most love—but have found that impossible. I also instituted a failed policy of telling myself that for every book I brought home, I would get rid of one already in my possession. Meanwhile, over the years, I seem to have acquired two thousand or so books. Publishers and people send me books. Like an incorrigible juvenile delinquent who can’t stay out of pool halls, I wander into used bookshops and do not often emerge empty-handed. Books in my apartment continue to multiply. Some of them, I suspect, do it overnight, in the dark, while I am asleep.
As a book accumulator, I am a piker next to Edward Shils, who in a capacious three-bedroom apartment in Chicago had a library of roughly 16,000 volumes, in three languages, all of them serious, with another six thousand books stored in a house he kept at Cambridge in England. In one of the two bathrooms in his Chicago apartment, Edward had bookshelves built over and above the bath and commode. No flat surface in his apartment, including his dining room table, was uncovered by books (or magazines or papers).
I am Edward Shils’s literary executor, and in his will he noted that he wished his personal library to go to Hebrew University in Jerusalem. When I wrote to a former student of his, himself now a teacher at Hebrew University, to inform him of this bequest, he called back to say that, though he was touched by Edward’s sentiment, the library at Hebrew University couldn’t find the space for so many books, nor the money—he estimated it at $100,000—needed to ship and catalogue them, but would accept a few hundred or so books that they would set out on shelves under his name. I eventually sold the bulk of the books to a private dealer, for the sum of $166,000, which went into Edward’s estate, but I also felt a touch of sadness that this great personal library, reflecting a powerful thinker’s intellectual autobiography, would now be broken up.
Nietzsche said that life without music is a mistake. I would agree, adding that it is no less a mistake without books. Proust called books “the noblest of distractions,” and they are assuredly that, but also more, much more. “People say that life is the thing,” wrote Logan Pearsall Smith, “but I prefer reading.” In fact, with a bit of luck, the two reinforce each other. In The Guermantes Way volume of his great novel, Proust has his narrator note a time when he knew “more books than people and literature better than life.” The best arrangement, like that between the head and the heart, is one of balance between life and reading. One brings one’s experience of life to one’s reading, and one’s reading to one’s experience of life. You can get along without reading serious books—many extraordinary, large-hearted, highly intelligent people have—but why, given the chance, would you want to? Books make life so much richer, grander, more splendid. The bookish life is not for everyone, nor are its rewards immediately evident, but at a minimum, taking it up you are assured, like the man said, of never being out of work.
Joseph Epstein is the author, most recently, of Charm: The Elusive Enchantment.