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The exasperated spirit. How to read books and why.
Harold Bloom said that irony is the key to reading well, 'even if many of your teachers will not know what it is, or where it is to be found.' And it is remarkable how often, even when watching plays or television, people object to the use of irony. There's a schoolteacher's insistence on explaining, choosing sides, things being unraveled. The idea of implication, or of things meaning the opposite to what they seem to be, is not something many people who read and watch culture are interested in.
When people watch comedy that is inconsequential, like sitcoms, irony is acceptable because is is blunt and blatant. But when we are dragged through a syllabus at school looking for the ironies in speech patterns and events, most of us cannot see the point and stubbornly maintain that attitude as if it marks us out in some important way.
The usual objection is that critically examining literature takes all the fun out of it. People are just there for the enjoyment and thinking about it takes a lot of the fun out of it. This is why a lot of impressive books struggle to get an audience. The Last Samurai is self-evidently one of the best novels written in the last hundred years, but you wouldn't know that from the publication history. Similarly, Ivy Compton-Burnett is a great writer, who ought to be getting the benefit of the current rediscovery of under appreciated women writers. But she's not an easy read. And dare I say it, Convenience Store Woman is being widely enjoyed often despite its ironies.
Of course, this is a variation on the old theme. Life is more enjoyable when you don't spend time thinking about it. Like Tyler Cowen said, what people really want to do is sit around talking with their friends and drinking, maybe throw in watching Netflix. Ignorance is bliss, and all that.
And sometimes the examined life is a struggle. No-one could fail to notice the fact that Socrates was put to death and Nietzsche went nuts, or that many writers end up as soaks, or the way that prominent intellectuals seem to be either mild mannered and well adjusted or prickly and neurotic. All of this is a variation on the idea that the real world doesn't require abstractions and a nuanced appreciation of irony.
But that's not proof of anything. Life is suffering. Everyone will struggle at some point. And real ignorance is a serious business. That is the ignorance of being illiterate, unable to work out how to navigate a decent job, being overwhelmed by the tax and benefits system, finding yourself in a room of people who do not speak your language. Those things are tragic. Read The Remains of the Day now that you're all grown up and the tragic irony will knock the wind out of you.
There's also the much more ironic sorts of ignorance, such as being an arse without realising it, saying the wrong thing, unknowingly having terrible manners that makes everyone around you irritated, living according to a set of lazy assumptions that will one day render you lonely, poor, or failed. In general this is the problem of not being the person you think you are. If you live that sort of life, you will find yourself much shorter on bliss than Socrates was on death row.
Of course, if you found someone in one of those situations you may find it useful to have done some critical reading and engaged with the concept of irony to help you understand other people and how they think and act in different situations. If you want to be a fully rounded adult individual, you don't have to have read any Bildungsroman, but it wouldn't hurt. Similarly, not all married people should watch Marriage Story or read A Happy Marriage, but a bit of concentrated reflection on marriage can't be a bad idea.
So how to do this? How to read?
You will need access to a lot of books. No problem there between the library, kindle, second hand books online, and the massive amount of literature published around the world every year. Your problem is choosing the right books. There's very little you can learn from most books. This isn't a snobby comment. I'm a big reader of Golden Age detective fiction, for example, but it doesn't show you much about the world other. It's fantastic entertainment, an education in plotting properly, and often the best bang for your buck when picking a movie. But Sherlock Holmes is no-body's idea of a life lesson, least of all Conan Doyle's who lamented the way people preferred those books over his more serious works.
So the books you will want should be classics or serious modern books. Again I'm no reactionary. Everyone ought to read The Handmaid's Tale and Jamaica Kincaid. These are books you will want to come back to again and again. This week I am flicking through Walton, Pepys, and Aubrey, and if I had them here I would be reading Donne's Sermons. Mostly these are cheap paperbacks I got second hand. I also got out my treasured copy of A.H.Bullen's Lyrics from the Song Books of the. Elizabeth Age out, a wonderful old book I bought on impulse and will probably be buried with.
The point is to have access to wonderful books you can read and re-read. That way you'll end up realising what Eliot said about old age is true early enough in your life for it to affect you.
the rending pain of reenactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others' harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
‘Wisdom in the end is purely personal’. That’s the great truth of imaginative literature. The people you spend time with predict who you will become, so the saying goes. Many of us are capable of being less passive than that. We can choose the books we spend time with and by reading and re-reading them we can encourage what you might want to call personal growth.
The basic objection to an examined life relies on the wealth assumption. We live in happy and prosperous time. Life is much easier for most people than it ever has been. We have not endured massive wars, plagues, famines, high rates of child mortality. We live in a largely healthy and hygienic world. We have technology to make things simpler. Our loos flush and are inside.
This tricks us into thinking that sort of living is not only inevitable, but to be taken for granted morally too. It often seems like people's arguments against a critical life assume the benefits of wealth. There's very little need to prepare your soul for death when death is never imminent. 'One cannot understand the seriousness of life when one lives in good conditions,' as the teenage Sylvia Plath said.
But if COVID shows us anything, it ought to be that some things in life are inevitable. Shit happens. You can no more put off your moral and intellectual obligations than you can ignore your pension and cross you fingers for a fairy godmother when you are seventy.
Life is suffering and there's no easy way out.
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.
In the end, only the serious reflective pleasures are the only ones worth anything. No happy person every wished they'd spent more time watching re-runs on their death bed if they haven't answered the questions they wanted to answer or spend enough time with the people they love. There's only so much time and you have no guarantee it will work out well. Take it seriously to make the most of it. Watch Netflix and drink with your friends. God knows I do. But spend an hour a day reading something good.
Start piling up your most important books. You never know when you're exasperated spirit will need them. Read slowly. Pay attention to the details. If you are reading Walton's Life of Donne (free online version), read aloud. Mutter it to yourself if there are other people around who aren't congenial to this sort of thing.
"Several charcoal fires being first made in his large study, he brought with him into that place his winding-sheet in his hand, and having put off all his clothes, had this sheet put on him, and so tied with knots at his head and feet, and his hands so placed as dead bodies are usually fitted, to be shrouded and put into their coffin or grave. Upon this Urn he thus stood, with his eyes shut, and with so much of the sheet turned aside as might show his lean, pale, and deathlike face, which was purposely turned towards the East, from whence he expected the second coming of his and our Saviour Jesus." In this posture he was drawn at his just height; and when the picture was fully finished, he caused it to be set by his bed-side, where it continued and became his hourly object till his death
You may not need to take it quite that far, and I'm not trying to persuade you to convert and become the Dead of St Paul's, but there is a full range of human experience we can only understand if we read about it as well as live it. What sort of sensible person wouldn't want to sift through these sorts of tales?
And the life advice you get from great books is not all maudlin. Aubrey is full of trivial humour.
He was of a middle stature; strong sett; curled haire; a very working head, in so much that, walking and meditating before dinner, he would eate-up a penny loafe, not knowing that he did it.
Or how about this description of a barrister Aubrey knew...
I remember my sadler who wrought many yeares to that family told me that Mr. Selden had got more by his prick then he had done by his practise.
So much reading advice these days is abut how reading can help you achieve things, as if the people who read books somehow weren't on average less worldly. It's true that great generals and leaders and business men from history have tended to be readers, but it's entirely untrue to say that readers have tended to be leaders and rich men. The point of reading is often nothing to do with being a winner or a leader. Quite the opposite.
Reading is a relief for the exasperated spirit. It's a way of engaging with times and places and ideas you might not otherwise be able to. It's a a good in and of itself, not a means to an end. Reading is a way of life. It is integral to preparing for death and thinking about how to live. Of course the mavens are correct. Reading is how presidents, generals, executives, and investors become better at what they do. But it's about how all of us us become better at who we are.
Don't read to be successful. Read to live better.
Read for no other aim than to enjoy it, to learn, to live an engaged life. As Harold Bloom said, 'The ultimate answer to the question “Why read?” is that only deep, constant reading fully establishes and augments an autonomous self. Until you become yourself, what benefit can you be to others?'
And for God's sake, as soon as you stop enjoying the book take Samuel Johnson's advice and put it down. You only live once.