July 5, 2019

What Not to Read

What Not to Read

I think I've already mentioned that, in the past, when I had enough to drink, I would end up purchasing books online. Usually, since I'm not a fan of softcover books getting abused in my backpack, I'd go for hardcover copies, and, preferably, old, leather-bound copies that have that wonderful smell of vague death.

Well, over the years, I've bought several of Tolstoy's nonfiction works and various poetry collections, and on one occasion, I was delighted to find that one of the previous owners of a well-regarded book had inserted the following newspaper clipping before the title:

In his recent address at the dedication of the new Chelsea library, Hon. James Russell Lowell uttered some sound sense as to the petty kind of reading in which many people spend a good deal of time. Referring to the scholarship of the men of three centuries ago, he said:
"They were scholars because they did not read so many things as we. They had fewer books, but these were of the best. Their speech was noble, because they lunched with Plutarch and supped with Plato. We spend as much time over print as they did, but instead of communing with the choice thoughts of choice spirits, and unconsciously acquiring the grand manner of that supreme society, we diligently inform ourselves and cover the continent with a network of speaking wires to inform us of such inspiring facts as that a horse belonging to Mr. Smith ran away on Wednesday, seriously damaging a valuable carryall; that a son of Mr. Brown swallowed a hickory-nut on Thursday; and that a gravel bank caved in and buried Mr. Robinson alive on Friday. Alas! it is we ourselves that are getting buried alive under this avalanche of earthly impertinences!"

This article was written sometime not too long after James Russell Lowell's address on December 22, 1885.

I found it interesting enough to snap a pic of it before I loaned the book out (which has since been unaccounted for but replaced) because, when I first encountered it, I suddenly became aware that Lowell's sentiment has somewhat been echoed throughout the generations. Sure, he was looking upon the news and other petty kinds of reading of "popular" novels of his day with disregard, but that "Kids these days!" attitude is the same demeanor that several have looked upon the popular works (and mediums) of their day.

  • "Radio programs destroyed books!"
  • "Television and film destroyed radio and books!"
  • "Video games destroyed television and film!"

Either this sentiment is justified in that it accurately points out the degradation of that supreme society by an influx of mediocrity or it is not wholly accurate as it discounts the value in the some of works of modern times. Now, I'm inclined to agree with Lowell, but that is not to say that there are not great, new works—only that they are relatively increasingly-rare in the sea of mediocrity. There has to have been terrible works in the past; it is only that the terrible works were filtered out by the previous generations (and what remains isn't always that grand, either).

I'm also inclined to think that Lowell would've had a stroke if he could have a peek into our present future—the amount of distractions available to us now! Sure, all the information of the past juiced up by the giants of that supreme society is readily available to us. We could metaphorically dine with Descartes via the tap of a screen, yet we choose to literally talk to our smart televisions and make them play Dexter on repeat while we eat microwavable meals. This is something to reflect on.

It was only a couple of years before I bought the book carrying this message that I decided to largely stick to the classics. My time is valuable to me. I learned that picking out a new book from a bookstore's best-sellers stand is, at best, a crapshoot. We've all read books we've found to be terrible. We might not realize that most of the books we've read (especially in our childhood libraries!) are seriously awful until we've happenstanced into a genuinely good book. Once I was only a few chapters into Anna Karenina,  I realized that I regretted reading nearly all of the other books I had read up until that point in my life.

After that moment, I concluded I'd have a better shot at picking a good book if it were a book well-regarded nearly universally throughout multiple generations.

These days, it takes accidentally brushing into a truly good book to learn what not to read.