Read what gives you delight - at least most of the time - and do so without shame. And even if you are that rare sort of person who is delighted chiefly by what some people call Great Books, don't make them your steady intellectual diet, any more than you would eat at the most elegant restaurant every day. It would be too much. Great books are great in part because of what they ask of their readers: they are not readily encountered, easily assessed. The poet W.H. Auden once wrote, "When one thinks of the attention that a great poem demands, there is something frivolous about the notion of spending every day with one. Masterpieces should be kept for High Holidays of the Spirit" - for our own personal Christmases and Easters, not for any old Wednesday.Alan Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, p. 23
It's noteworthy that what someone like the young Richard Rodriguez thought of as true and high seriousness - reading masterpieces and masterpieces only - Auden sees as "frivolous." This is not so paradoxical as it seems. What's frivolous is not the masterpiece itself, but the idea that at any given time I the reader am prepared to meet its standards, to rise to its challenges. Those challenges wear heavily upon the unprepared reader (at age ten or twenty or sixty) and as a result the reading, which in anticipation promised such riches of meaning, proves in fact to be that dread appointment with the elliptical trainers I mentioned earlier. And who needs that?
Friday, June 10, 2011
Alan Jacobs on making the Great Books your steady intellectual diet
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