Why read?

Up! up! my friend, and clear your looks,
Why all this toil and trouble?
Up! up! my friend, and quit your books,
Or surely you’ll grow double.

The sun above the mountain’s head,
A freshening lustre mellow,
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.

Why is Willie Wordsworth telling us in a book not to read books?

Why read? What’s the point? Let us leave aside textbooks, which we need to pass our exams and get good jobs. Let us also leave aside books of non-fiction – international politics, molecular biology, ancient history, that sort of thing – books from which we may learn things: it is generally agreed that knowledge is a good thing – although, even here, there are dissenters: Charles Clarke, a former Secretary of Education (my italics), publicly questioned while in office the point of learning about a subject such as medieval history. I hate to think what the erudite Mr Clarke may have to say about learning such matters as literature, or art history, or music. Let us focus on literature. Why study it? What is there to study, after all? Why even bother reading it?

I mean, of course, all that arty-farty stuff. All that Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Proust – that stuff we don’t really like, apparently, but pretend to because we are posers. What’s the point? It’s not as if it makes anyone a better person: as we all know, many high-ranking Nazis were tremendously well cultured, and reading Ulysses certainly won’t make anyone more likely to help a blind person across the road. And it’s not going to make anyone richer either. As Mr Clarke so perspicaciously noted, pursuit of what is usually termed “High Culture” ain’t going to contribute to the economy.

This puts those of us who love literature – who, indeed, feel it an indispensable part of our lives – on the defensive. We enjoy it, we say weakly. And as soon as we say this, we open ourselves to a second onslaught. Oh, you enjoy it, do you? Jolly good! So why do you expect us to subsidise your enjoyment? I am not sure how this debate progresses in other countries, but in Britain, at any rate, this is the point when class comes into it, even – or, perhaps, especially – from those with solidly middle-class backgrounds: why should we working people subsidise your middle class enjoyments? Why do you expect us working classes to subsidise your operas and your classical music concerts and your Royal Bloody Shakespeare Companies? At this point, one can either become aggressive oneself in response (as I tend to do); or one may simply hide for cover. But one realises that even though good answers exist – as I think they do in such cases – these answers are complex and subtle, and cannot be expressed when the “debate” comprises of no more than merely an angry exchange of prefabricated soundbites. Which – let us face it – is the standard of virtually all that passes for debate on the net.

So let us try to move away from the volleys of angry soundbites, and consider this matter with a bit more care. Let us, for the moment, restrict ourselves to literature; and, even there, let us restrict ourselves to what we may term “imaginative literature” – i.e. poetry, drama, fiction – the sort of thing often denounced as a waste of time or, at best, a mere diversion or an entertainment, and considered of no greater value than any other type of diversion or entertainment. Why read these books? The answer may not be easy, but the question, however tentatively, however uncertainly, needs to be addressed.

For me, the greatest literary artists are those whose visions pierce beyond the surface of things – the “pasteboard masks”, as Ahab calls them:

All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?

The greatest of literary artists see things beyond the surface, and, furthermore, have the skill to communicate something of what they see. This doesn’t often make for easy reading, or even for comfortable reading, or, indeed, for any kind of reading at all that can reasonably be classed as “entertainment”. But it can make for rewarding reading. Such works are rewarding because by giving the reader glimpses beyond the pasteboard masks, beyond what is merely visible on the surface, they open up areas of thought and of feeling that would otherwise have been inaccessible.

Of course, not every reader will respond equally to every writer’s vision. For instance, I find myself responding keenly to the artistic vision of a Tolstoy or a Dickens, and also, increasingly, despite grave reservations and for reasons I find difficult to articulate, to Dostoyevsky; I find myself utterly in thrall to the dramas of Shakespeare and the poetry of Tagore; Wordsworth, Ibsen, Yeats, Chekhov, Greek tragedy, Eliot’s Middlemarch and Joyce’s Ulysses, and many, many others, are all, I find, very close to me. On the other hand, I find it hard to feel much for Austen except a somewhat grudging admiration from a respectful and decorous distance; I have ambivalent feelings about Hardy; D. H. Lawrence I simply do not understand; and the works of Woolf, I am sorry to say, I find merely tedious. Everyone will have their own lists of what they find themselves responding to or not responding to – inevitably so, as we all have different personalities, and different perceptions, the differences often subtle and nuanced. And, as we grow and develop over time, what we respond to can change even as we change as people; sometimes, what we read may even be the agents of this change. But one has, I think, to trust each other’s judgement (and I mean judgement, and not merely unthinking opinion, of which there is no shortage), and accept that something may be of great value, even if one cannot immediately see that value for oneself. This is why discussion on such matters is so important: without discussion, without exchanging our thoughts and perceptions with each other, and refining our own thoughts and our perceptions in the process, we may well become imprisoned within the limitations of our own minds. The internet should, in theory, be the ideal platform for such exchanges, instead of the vapid exchange of soundbites it all too frequently is.

If all this makes the reading of literature sound very difficult – well, it is. Let us not pretend otherwise. Let us not pretend that the masterpieces of Tolstoy or of Dickens are merely stories to be lightly enjoyed, much as one might enjoy, say, airport thrillers. Let us not pretend that it’s all simply “entertainment”: it isn’t.

Does it follow, then, that the likes of Tolstoy or Dickens are somehow superior to “mere entertainment”? No, I don’t think so. In the first place, I wouldn’t attach the adjective “mere” to the word “entertainment”. Dickens himself started his literary career as a “mere” entertainer, and, even in his most artistically sophisticated works, he never forgot the importance of “mere” entertainment: art and entertainment are not necessarily incompatible. But they can be, and we must allow for that. And if any reader, out of personal choice, prefers “mere” entertainment to profundity of vision, then that is an entirely valid choice to make. But the other choice is valid also.

However, it is hardly a matter of one or the other: a lover of Middlemarch may well enjoy rousing adventure stories, and the lover of hard-boiled detective thrillers may thrill also to the depth of insight of a Gustave Flaubert. Sometimes, the same work can serve several different purposes simultaneously: a work such as Pride and Prejudice can delight those who look merely upon the surface, and can also reward those who peer beneath. Whatever boundary there is between artistry and entertainment is porous to such a degree that the boundary itself should not, perhaps, be insisted upon. But it doesn’t follow that all books should be judged solely or even primarily on their ability to entertain; and neither does it follow that books that entertain should be privileged above those that don’t, but which, nonetheless, have riches of a different sort to offer.

For if the entertainment value of a book is privileged above other aspects; or if, as is sometimes the case, the very validity of these other aspects is denied; then we inevitably, I think, end up sidelining serious literature away from the mainstream. This is because those books that set out to do more than merely divert are often difficult books, and require effort from the reader. Reading, after all, is not a passive activity: where the content is complex, or intricate, or profound, the reader has to make what is often an immense effort to engage with it. But if that which requires effort and that which doesn’t are deemed to be of comparable value, then there is no reason, and certainly no incentive, for anyone to tackle books of the former category in preference to the latter; or, should they do so, give books of the former category the attention and the effort they demand. I fear we may have already arrived at such a state.

But let us hope my fears are unjustified: after all, the barbarians were always thought be at the gates. But in answer to the question “Why read serious literature?” we should, instead of offering the weak reply “it entertains”, be vociferous in proclaiming that imaginative literature, at its best, is capable of enriching our lives, and that we have developed means so sophisticated to make our lives richer is among the defining marks of our civilisation itself. As Wordsworth himself no doubt knew, reading his poetry in the seclusion of one’s study can be every bit as enriching as experiencing at first hand the evening sun’s “freshening lustre mellow”.

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by alan on July 17, 2011 at 4:57 pm

    Philip Hensher has been talking about this perennial with respect to some work done by Keith Oatley. Here’s what I think is his blog.


  2. Posted by alan on July 17, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    oops – this is Oatley’s blog.


  3. What a brillant and interesting blog..look forward to reading more..ELiza Keating


    • Hello Eliza, welcome to the blog, and thank you for your kind words. If you look around here a bit, you may even find a few posts discussing books and writers in amongst the intemperate rants! 🙂


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