Friday, June 10, 2011

Alan Jacobs on making the Great Books your steady intellectual diet

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.

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?
Alan Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, p. 23


  1. How ironic that AJ, who accuses the powers that be of discouraging reading by making young people read those horrible classics, is here discouraging people from reading those horrible classics. I'd like to know where he got the idea that the classics are so awful, difficult, heavy, challenging, etc.?

    He's insulting people's intelligence by saying they can't handle classics and won't enjoy them anyway. He compares reading to food, well, do people buy nice light bite-sized tomato sandwiches or do they crave the Double Down? The human brain is wired to want more, and that is exactly what the classics deliver. Why waste time on fluff? /rant

  2. I knew this would get a response from you!

    Actually, I think you're mistaken to say that Jacobs is in any way discouraging the reading of the classics or saying they are awful, etc. Two key points:

    1. He inserts the phrase "at least most of the time". My lunch break ended just as I was getting to the place where he explains that phrase - so there will be more to come. He is fighting against those who want to make reading about hygiene, rather than pleasure. He is certainly not the sort who disparage the classics.

    2. His concern with making the classics your steady intellectual diet is that most of us aren't prepared to give what they demand all the time. I think his advice may in fact be a way to maintain an appreciation for the classics in that it discourages a superficial reading of them, which may be the result of making them your steady diet. (Not that I am in any way accusing you of doing this.)

    But, as I said, there will be further clarification of his point as I continue through the book.

  3. Ya, you might as well wave a red flag in front of me. :D It's just that I've seen "ordinary" readers "tackle" great works like War and Peace or The Odyssey and discover that they are not difficult to read and are in fact very enjoyable if not downright page-turners. This notion that classics are the print version of elliptical trainers is what I object to. It just makes people fear them all the more and so they don't even try. It's prejudice that stops people from reading the classics, not their (supposed) difficulty, IMO. AJ is just adding to the prejudice by suggesting great books are too rich to read on a regular basis, as though they will give people neurological indigestion. It's nonsense. What is more likely to happen is that once they experience the best they won't want to go back to bestsellers!

    I also thinks he sells people short by suggesting that pleasure, that is pure entertainment, is the only thing people want from books. People also want to be inspired, to make some sense of life, to marvel at beautiful language, to learn about other cultures, etc. He seems to be advocating a kind of reading that is indistinguishable from passive TV watching. What's the point of that? I look forward to future clarification!


About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.