On Arts and Letters this week was an article from The American Conservative about the “Hedonism of Reading Good Books.” (by E. J. Hutchinson, a professor at Hillsdale College). It draws back to William Hazlitt’s On Reading Old Books, (an old essay that takes on additional significance when you see that it was written in 1821.
Anyway, it brings up two topics that I think are always relevant in literary discussions.
The first is, you guessed it, reading old books. I’ve always said that they could quit publishing books today and you’d still have plenty of great stuff to read for 10 lifetimes and most of it is available for free, either at a library or on the web. We’ve certainly shown our commitment to this idea with our reading projects, including The Brothers Karamazov this year.
So, I’m always up for digging back into an old classic, whether it might be from the WAY BACK files or even a forgotten book like Stoner. It makes me think a little bit about Helene Hanff’s reading tastes in 84 Charing Cross Road. There is beauty in old classics…those are also my favorite paintings at the museum.
And I agree with the idea that a book that has stood the test of time is usually good. However, I’m not prepared to give it the de facto seal of approval that you can read from these two guys.
For example, a lot of people (but certainly not Professor Hutchinson) began to look back to It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis when Trump was elected. I suspect in most cases, that lasted about three pages. Lewis may have won the Nobel Prize and his books are still in print, but his writing is absolutely jarring to the modern ear. Anyway, old is not necessarily better.
I also give you Edith Wharton. Never read Edith Wharton.
And beyond that, you might think about the great “new” books that Hazlitt missed because he didn’t read new books. I do agree that you don’t want to be careless about what you read because it wastes your time and hurts your brain. I just don’t agree that has to be all old books.
The second issue is re-reading. Barb and I know a woman who re-reads Gone With the Wind every year. That’s extreme. I don’t have anything that matches that, though I have from time-to-time re-read books.
Books are an experience between who you are now and the book. Since you are always evolving over time, you will find that a book is different when it is read after, say ten years. (In theory of course, since you are constantly evolving, it would be different every day or minute or second, but let’s not be dicks about it).
There’s also prime time for reading certain books. I had a professor who told us to read Walden before the age of 24 or never.
My best example was re-reading the Confederacy of Dunce, which I read once as a teenager (attracted by the tragic nature of the Toole bio) and then again later. With a more mature and developed sense of humor, I was able to appreciate what is now one of my two favorite books.
One last thing. Going back to the title of Hutchinson’s piece….all reading is pleasure. Call it Hedonism if you like, but reading is a pleasure.