Sorry folks, I’ve been doing a lot of substack posting, and there are a few posts there that aren’t on here, but I’ll keep cross-posting for a while longer yet! I wouldn’t say Substack is better on a usability front–it’s just healthier, more readers, more growth. Nice to feel like someone is actually reading these posts!
As I finish the first draft of What’s So Great About The Great Books, I am going back and reading through the large list of collected links and articles that various people have recommended to me about the subject. I feel deeply embarrassed that I haven’t done this already. I can’t imagine how I wrote an entire book about the Great Books without having read, for instance, Toni Morrison’s Unspeakable Things Unspoken or Coetzee’s “What Is A Classic?”. All I can say is that initially I felt so overwhelmed by the project that I wanted to dive in and start writing immediately, if only to figure out what I myself thought, and it’s only now that I have a draft that I feel free enough to do the required reading.
I’ve always had an aversion to doing the reading. Almost every other literary critic has gone through a PhD, and some are college professors. My understanding is that in grad seminars you have to read a book a week! I’ve no idea how they do it. The moment I have to read a book, my brain turns off. It’s some instinctive aversion to authority, I think.
But if that’s the case, why am I so enamored of reading lists and reading schemes? This whole substack is about one list of books, The New Lifetime Reading Plan. But it’s far from the only list of books I’ve collected. I am an avid user of List Challenges, the website that collates lists, and I’ve picked through it, magpie-like, accumulating picks everyone’s book lists.
I also love reprint series. I shop from the NYRB Classics catalogue, of course, but I also have a saved link to the New Directions catalogue and routinely trawl it for suggestions. On my bedside I keep two coffee-table books: The Penguin Classics and The Penguin Modern Classics collections, and I sometimes flip through them—most recently the latter supplied me with Youth Without God, by Udon Von Horvath, which is a 1930s Hungarian novel about a teacher whose students become increasingly fascist.
But I also have a list of about thirty other publishers that do classics reprints. You know, like NYRB Classics, but much more obscure. It’s essentially a list of lists, and it runs now to some thirty publishers! (My favorite is Northwestern University’s European Classics, which has made a minor specialty of translating Soviet literature (i.e. books by non-dissident writers). I have a number of their books, but I most enjoyed Lydia Chukovskaya’s Sofia Petrovna (a novel about urban life in the Terror. A faithful government clerk goes insane when her son is taken).
And I collect textbooks on the history of literature. I have a six-volume History of Indian Literature, a History of Persian Literature, two different History of Italian Literatures, a History of Eastern European Literature, and others. It’s a sickness.
Don’t even get me started on my Norton anthologies. I have all six volumes of the Norton Anthology of World Literature. I don’t read the texts for classes that I do take, but I do read the texts for classes that I’ll never take.
It’s a madness, it’s not healthy. One of the books recommended to me by my editor, which I’m just looking at now, is from the 1880s. It’s by Professor James Baldwin, and it’s called The Book-Lover: A Guide To The Best Reading. The first two chapters are all about how to avoid bad books and how to read systematically. My favorite quote is:
“Desultory reading,” writes Julius C. Hare, “is indeed very mischievous, by fostering habits of loose, discontinuous thought, by turning the memory into a common sewer for rubbish of all thoughts to flow through, and by relaxing the power of attention, which of all our faculties most needs care…
This I would say is a fair description of my reading. I put everything into my mind, as in a common sewer. Last year I decided that I’d read all the books I ever wanted to read, so now I was going to read a bunch of books that I didn’t want to read, so I made a list of books that seemed boring or silly to me. It included [follow link to see the rest of this public post]