June 21: Reading is hard, which makes us awesome for doing it


I kind of thing they should have had this reading by John Ruskin as early in January, to set the tone for the year and make you think you're doing something more than what you actually are:

When you come to a good book, you must ask yourself, “Am I inclined to work as an Australian miner would? Are my pickaxes and shovels in good order, and am I in good trim myself, my sleeves well up to the elbow, and my breath good, and my temper?” And, keeping the figure a little longer, even at the cost of tiresomeness, for it is a thoroughly useful one, the metal you are in search of being the author’s mind or meaning, his words are as the rock which you have to crush and smelt in order to get at it. And your pickaxes are your own care, wit, and learning; your smelting-furnace is your own thoughtful soul.
And your fellow-readers? Those are the guys who are going to knife you in your sleep and steal your theses. And college towns, they're like those mining towns where you can get cheap beer and floozies in exchange for a few grains of precious insights. And then people who read a lot, and very intensely, become the richest people in the world!

He flatters us bookish types further, by making us intellectual Green Berets, the best of best:
Do you deserve to enter? Pass. Do you ask to be the companion of nobles? Make yourself noble, and you shall be. Do you long for the conversation of the wise? Learn to understand it, and you shall hear it. But on other terms?—no. If you will not rise to us, we cannot stoop to you. The living lord may assume courtesy, the living philosopher explain his thought to you with considerate pain; but here we neither feign nor interpret; you must rise to the level of our thoughts if you would be gladdened by them, and share our feelings, if you would recognize our presence.
I admit a certain fondness for this attitude -- as if the books are saying that it's your job to be relevant to us. It's not a very innovation-friendly attitude, it's not pro-freshness, but there's something temperamentally appealing about it -- maybe because when we have a canon we have a common tongue between generations, even with the dead; but when we confine ourselves to the strictly contemporary one finds oneself middleaged and bald and at seas on Facebook. (I'm not even sure that's a good reference -- see the point?)

The second half of the reading is a pitch for knowing etymologies, especially for our mongrel English tongue, which I am certainly in favor of (you can fool around here if you agree), although there is a section where Ruskin is making a pitch for plain Anglo-Saxon and uses the word "contumely," which made me smile. There follows a close reading of a passage of "Lycidias," which is left to the fan of close reading. (I am one myself; but that because, as I aspire to the condition of a water beetle, I can't do it.

Photo courtesy flickr user sansanparrots used with Creative Commons license.

1 comments:

J. Ruchman said...

I really love the idea that the reader has to do a lot of work. That's something my professors talked about a lot at Williams -- that the work of reading is so hard because it is so rewarding. What I love about David Denby's book on "The Great Books" is that he quotes one of his Columbia professors as saying that reading is a "selfish exercise, on which the reader embarks for selfish reasons." He goes on to say that reading the books which have been relevant to generations before you is the first step to finding what is relevant to you in your life now. That's pretty deep stuff, and I know comedy writers fear all that is sincere, but this post inspired me to go out on a limb here and share that --