by Nathan Pinkoski
‘People say that life is a thing, but I prefer reading.’ Whether Robertson Davies said that, or someone else entirely, has ceased to matter to me; for I, like Davies, have made reading my great refuge and solace. Like Davies, I read piles of rubbish for necessity, to make a living; like Davies, I also read for my own satisfaction, just as I please. It is for that reason that I confess I am a rake at reading, and just as other rakes, I must also confess that I read those things I ought not to have, and do not read those things that I ought to. So there is no health in me, ‘health’ here meaning an inclusive and coherent knowledge of any body of great literature.
In his essay bearing the same title as this one, Davies’s claim that he has no ‘health’ in him, knowledge of a body of great literature, was comically absurd. Starting in the Ontario Reader of his childhood, Davies goes on to demonstrate his erudition, well known to an older generation of Canadians. Davies could declaim how his love of the written word brought its own coherent knowledge of great literature, guided as it was by an inner force working in his soul. His essay would speak well to a generation that got its start with an Ontario Reader, read widely enough to develop their own coherent tastes, and had read just enough Jung in their youth to know what Davies meant by ‘soul.’
That is not my generation. Generally, we prefer to read articles on the internet, and read significantly less books—even compared to the early 2000s. Those who are supposed to read for a living do not escape this trend. For me, the greatest shock of 2016 was reading a young academic, only a few years older than myself, who declared that reading books was ‘inefficient.’ This young academic’s point was that books could really be distilled into a short summarized argument. It is certainly the case that academic writing has some deserved notoriety for writing very much while saying very little. But those were the bad books. Had this young academic ever read any great books? The academic’s declaration was a catastrophe. It was the sort of thing about which I would write outraged letters to my children. It doesn’t matter that I don’t have any children, the children are simply a convenient rhetorical device for expressing my outrage to the broader public.
A straightforward response to this catastrophe of 2016 would be to recommend great books. Indeed there is a whole tradition of great book education. This tradition argues that the experience of reading these books is its own reward. It is exciting. It introduces new ideas of older times with which we are unfamiliar in modern times. It challenges our prejudices. It makes us hate our own narrowness. It opens new horizons of understanding. Conveniently for the purposes of gaining ‘health,’ it comes with easily accessible lists that banishes the odour of bad books. Who would accuse Aristotle of inefficiency? If anything he is too efficient.
This straightforward response, however, faces one great obstacle. This education requires a context. I can speak offhand about the inherent nobility of reading a Platonic dialogue, but if you ask me to figure out the logic underwriting Plato’s Euthyphro argument, I will need others to help me get along. In that effort, even after nearly a decade of post-secondary education, I assure my reader that I stumble. I am unsure how to understand a great book.
I only possess the fragments of learning. I need the help of others to know what books to read that would even get me to the point of being in a position to engage properly with great books. What I need are lists of ‘second-best books:’ lists that introduce time periods, ideas, or modes of reasoning with which I have little or no familiarity. Moreover, I am a rake at reading: sometimes I aspire to read as I please about a certain time period, idea, or mode of reasoning. This fancy can strike me suddenly on a Sunday walk. I then need good lists and advice over ‘second-best books’. Yet I rarely find it. Facebook friends recommend contemporary articles and editorials. The few print media publications that still offer book reviews do so only for the latest, most fashionable books. Now, I can find a few things to help me understand great books. It is easy enough to find contemporary articles that refer to authors of the canon, whether it be old wine like Plato or new wine like Hannah Arendt. Some are even good articles.
But it is almost unheard of to come across an article that addresses more profound questions for those who read what they please. For rakes at reading have heard of Plato and Hannah Arendt; their volumes of Plato and Arendt sit boastfully on their bookshelves. They are looking for answers to the kinds of questions that arise only in great bookstores. These are practical, contemporary questions. Imagine that I venture into a large bookstore, and see a display commemorating the centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. I think, ‘I would like to learn more about the First World War,’ and so venture over to the appropriate section. Now, looking at the titles, I am at loss. Who is this ‘Barbara Tuchman’ that appears in the First World War section? Should I read the book The Guns of August in a vintage paperback edition, or set it aside for something different, like this flashy new book from Margaret MacMillan? I have no answer. Perhaps a novel on the First World War will do instead. ‘What are good novels about the First World War,’ I ask? Those are classified by the author’s name, so I try to think of some familiar names. Yet what does the canon tell me here? By 1914, Charles Dickens and George Eliot are long dead. Ernest Hemingway and Evelyn Waugh are but adolescents. I am not even sure where to start. My list of great books provides no guidance.
In the absence of specialists, only the rake for reading can help. ‘Ford Madox Ford. That’s who you’re looking for.’ Or, ‘I’ve never read that book of MacMillan’s, but The Guns of August is glorious. I read it in just a few days last summer.’ That is the sort of guidance I seek: those who can summon a list of second-best books. To be sure, these would be the counsels of friends; we need greater justifications from a stranger. So my objective is this. Over the course of the next year for The Wanderer, according to three rules, I aim to write a few short reviews of a certain kind of book. 1) They are not to be books that address contemporary events. 2) They are not to be canonical or ‘great books.’ 3) They are not to be found in any general school and university course. These are books that I have discovered by personal recommendation or by accident. They do not have any thematic unity. It is the record of a rake at reading who is recommending a variety of second-best books. Perhaps some will discern an inner force at work in my soul, but that is not the aim. I aim to recommend the books that contribute to my ‘health’ and criticize the books that have detracted from it. I know there are other rakes for reading out there, so I invite them to do the same: I assure you it is easy enough to write for the Wanderer. For I submit that we are all in the same state of confusion, and if we want to have health then it is best to confess to being a rake at reading.