Just the other day, I got this letter from my friend Bruce Thomas. It raises a lot of interesting questions about what it means to be well read. I’ve attached the response he requested which I don’t think answered any of those questions. Instead, they raised yet others. What more could you hope for from a good conversation? I invite you to add your own questions – or answers.
Dear Marv and Posey:
My 18-year-old granddaughter just went off to upstate NY to begin her college career (Hamilton College). A few weeks before she left, she called with a question. a friend had given her a $30 gift certificate for Milwaukee’s best bookstore, Boswell’s. Addy’s question was: what book or books would I recommend that she buy with the $30.00? I told her I’d have to think about that. I won’t bore you with the details but in the end, with suggestions from a number of people, she ended up buying A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (not my suggestion and in fact I’d never read it but am reading it now and am appalled that I’d never read it) and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe–my final suggestion.
Addy’s original question set off a host of others and I’m still swimming around in them. What does it mean to be a well-read person? Does subjecting books to the police power of schools drive some students away from independent reading? Do lists like the 100 Best Books have any value? I started rooting around on the internet for “best books” lists and came across one that was something of a meta-list in that it claimed to have reviewed many lists and distilled them into a final one that numbered over 500 books. My son Sam asked a very apt question: how many of those 500 authors lived in non-NATO countries? In fact, not many.
You’ve heard the expression to describe a difficult or impossible task: “like herding cats.” That’s the way I feel right now about all the questions around reading. Forget the goddamn answers! What are the good questions?
I count myself a member of a rapidly disappearing generation, those who grew up before television. (My first memory of television was watching the Joe MaCarthy hearings ca. 1953.)
My life outside of school was either in the library or outdoors. I read lots of books and also comic books. The library in my one room schoolhouse in NH was a glass-fronted bookcase, maybe 3’ wide by 5’ high in dimension. The single largest occupant of its shelves was a 23-volume series titled The Boy Allies, about the adventures of 3 young Americans and one Englishman in the first World War. The teacher, Mrs. Plant, and I developed a tacit understanding: I could read the Boy Allies uninterrupted and would stay quietly in my seat. That’s what I remember from my NH one-room school.
I call upon your lifetime of grappling with these questions to give me answers I can take to my grave. Or at least some clarity about the questions.
From yr correspondent in Evanston
Let me start my response to your powerful and provocative questions by recounting my own history as a reader, something we often asked our students in the Urban Teacher Education Program to do at the start of their course on teaching reading. I’ve probably touched on some of this history in earlier blogs, but this is a good opportunity to pull it all together in one place.
There were very few books in my growing up home – just an inferior set of encyclopedias and a pictorial history of World War II, both purchased by my parents from door-to-door salesmen. However, there was a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library a healthy walk away from our apartment and my best guess is that I started making that walk weekly from around the age of 10. Before then there was the school library, which was heavy on biographies and information books. The whole children’s book industry hadn’t been born yet, so the fiction world was represented primarily by series like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, neither of which I was drawn to. In Junior High, the school library also contained science fiction options and that became my passion for a while.
Keep in mind that my parents were immigrants and although my father became an avid reader of history and politics books in his later years, they weren’t in a position to guide my reading interests. My older sister was not much of a reader until she became a commuter to her post-high school job. At that point she began buying cheap – in all senses of the word – novels to pass the time on the subway. I did check them out when she brought them home, but primarily for prurient reasons.
The big reading breakthrough for me came after I achieved the card that gave me access to the adult collection of the Eastern Parkway branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. Navigating what seemed like its vast holdings was overwhelming without guidance. My salvation was the discovery of fiction volumes published by something called The Modern Library, each of which was identifiable by the symbol of a small dog (which I later learned was a Borzoi). Unknowingly, that became my 100 or 500 Best Books list into which I dove in a highly unsystematic fashion by simply walking through the stacks and pulling any book with the mysterious marking. In that way, I was introduced to Dostoevsky, Gogol, Stendhal, Zola, Hardy, Meredith and Joyce. I suspect that Proust and Tolstoy’s classics were too bulky to fit the series format, so I didn’t encounter them. The Russians opened a whole new world of emotions for me and Joyce’s Ulysses, which I diligently read from cover to cover left me bewildered. I definitely wasn’t ready for it, certainly not without a mentor to guide me through that labyrinth of language.
Your son Sam’s comment about authors from NATO countries is largely true, although my tastes and those of serious readers in general have broken through many of those barriers. There’s Garcia Marquez, for example, who deserves a place in the pantheon and more recently numerous writers from India and Africa have produced much that is essential reading. It remains true that most of these breakthrough authors write in English. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel translated from the Chinese and the only books translated from Arabic I can recall are those by the great Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz which certainly deserve a place in at least the pantheon of 500.
The late great critic Harold Bloom created multiple firestorms with his listings of books that deserve a place in the literary canon, which come as close as anything I know to an official measure of what it means to be well-read. In the face of justifiable criticisms of the paucity of the voices of Blacks and women, Bloom himself declared the whole idea of a literary canon absurd. Nonetheless, scrolling through his extensive list of canonical works by historical period and by nationality is a totally intimidating and demoralizing experience. If this defines what it means to be well-read, I might as well retreat to reading John Grisham because there’s no way to chip away with any visible effect at that mountain of granite.
So where does that leave me? I am resigned as a reader to the drip irrigation process of choosing individual “classics” interspersed with contemporary works that will never make anyone’s list of the greats, yet speak to our current condition in ways that raise questions for me, rather than providing answers and that are presented in language that aspires to some kind of beauty and musicality. That latter requirement is one of the many factors that eliminate writers like Grisham.
Bruce, your granddaughter is going to have to seek out mentors at Hamilton who can point her to a few of the small treasures in Bloom’s canon. It happens that one summer in my undergraduate years, I took a summer school class at Brooklyn College taught by a visiting professor from Hamilton who acted as my Borzoi, leading me to the works of Lessing and Goethe, two entries in Bloom’s canon. I can hardly say that makes me well read, but I have derived a lifetime of pleasure from the small chips I’ve accumulated from that virtually unassailable monument.