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Our education is judged as much by the books we haven’t read as those we have. It’s a sad fact that no matter how well-read we try to be, we simply cannot read everything. Not even close. 

My reading includes many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore. I have read Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage Around my Room, Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis of the Deified Claudius (Alternately, the Pumkinification of the Divine Claudius, antedating the apocolocyntosis of Donald Trump by two millennia), Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson, and The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Basho.  

That tendency to seek out so many obscure books has meant that I read Melville’s Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile long before I ever finished Moby Dick. In fact, I have read almost all of Melville, from Typee to The Confidence Man to John Marr and Other Sailors, and his poetry, in Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War. The problem with Moby Dick was not the book, but me. I love the style of Melville so much, that every time I picked up Moby Dick, I started again from the beginning. Over and over. I must have read “Loomings” 50 times. I have since gotten through the whole thing, and I love the book dearly. Reading Melville is like eating a meal as rich as foie gras. 

I mention all this because, while I have read Xenophon’s Anabasis, and enjoyed the hell out of it, I have to confess, I have never quite been able to finish Thucydides. Herodotus charms the heck out of me; I can’t count the number of times I have gone back to his Histories, but old Thucydides always feels a bit turgid, dense and humorless. I feel I gain as much from reading a summary of his Peloponnesian Wars as from trudging through the full-length. I may be mistaken in that belief, I grant. But the fact is, I have limited time on this planet, and of the making of books there is no end. 

The number of books I know I should have read is immense. Yes, I have read Tristram Shandy (the funniest book I have ever read), but I have never read Jane Austen. I hope to get around to it some day. I have read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but I have not yet read Proust. (I have a similar problem with Swann’s Way that I had with Moby Dick: I have read the first 50 pages several times, and each time, I start anew.) 

I only got around to Tolstoy’s War and Peace last year. I don’t know why it took me so long. It may be the greatest book I’ve ever read. I still haven’t tackled Anna Karenina, although many years ago I read The Death of Ivan Ilyich and The Kreutzer Sonata. 

The holes in my erudition are wide enough to sail an icebreaker through. Yet, I count in this world, as a fairly well-read man. 

Sometimes we feel guilty for things we should not. The guilt hangs over us like a dark cloud, and we live our lives believing that everyone knows. I am confessing my guilt here, and the obvious fact that I am a fraud. 

Among the books I haven’t read are: The Aeneid (it bores me every time I pick it up); Don Quixote (I’ve tried, believe me, but it just goes on and on and never seems to get anywhere); Les Miserables; Sons and Lovers; The Tin Drum; Lord Jim; Rabbit, Run; Orlando; The Handmaid’s Tale; Dr. Zhivago; Jude the Obscure. I could go on. 

There are whole authors I have managed to avoid: Aside from Austen, there are: Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Thomas Wolfe, Henry James, J.R.R. Tolkien. All of them worthy and important. Among the writers I have avoided because of being forced to read them in high school, and therefore destroying my ability to even bear them are Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. Forcing kids to read books well beyond their ability to understand them can only ruin those books for life. 

From the list of the so-called greatest books on the website thegreatestbooks.org, I have read 19 of the top 25 volumes on the list and 31 of the first 50. That seems decent, but it leaves off too many books that I should have read. 

Prominent among them are more recent writings. I have read the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Tao Te Ching and Beowulf many times in different translations, I have somehow managed to miss Jonathan Franzen, Joan Didion, Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, Khaled Hosseini, Annie Proulx, and Jeffrey Eugenides. 

Shakespeare & Co., Paris

I swear, I know this is a horrible confession. I am one ignorant S.O.B. Yes to Suetonius, no to Dio Cassius; Yes to Longinus and Lucretius, not so much for Josephus or Livy. 

What I blame is not so much my waywardness, but the fact that it is impossible to read everything. The last person to do that, according to his biography, was John Milton, who took several years off after university to read everything ever written in a language he could read, and that included Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, German, Italian and, of course, English. But much has been published since then, and even a specialist cannot read everything just in his or her own field. So, we pick and choose.

And if, like me, you choose not to be a specialist, and not get a post-doctoral degree in the subspecies of Malagasy dung beetle, so as to become the world expert in such, the purpose of reading is not to master a particular field, but to take as wide a view of everything as possible. 

One could certainly find a list — such as the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf — of those books deemed by consent of the educated to be the most important and slog your way through them one by one so as to round out your erudition. But I have chosen a more desultory strategy, picking those books that appealed to me. After all, I read primarily for pleasure, not by obligation.

And let’s face it, the five-foot shelf of a hundred years ago is now rather dated and fails to include much that would now be considered mandatory. Things change. 

So, I make my own list, and if it includes H.L. Mencken and doesn’t include Fenimore Cooper, so be it. Although I did get huge pleasure from reading Mark Twain’s exploration of Cooper’s “literary offenses.” I recommend it. 

"Michael Jackson and Bubbles" by Jeff Koons, and Elgin Marbles figure

“Michael Jackson and Bubbles” by Jeff Koons, and Elgin Marbles figure

In 1632, the young English poet John Milton, just out of college, took up residence at his father’s country estate at Horton, near Windsor. And for the next six years he managed to read everything that had ever been written and was extant, in all languages living and dead, that a European scholar of the time might have heard of. That included literature, history, biography, philosophy, science, mathematics — the whole throatful of it. milton cigar

Everything that had ever been written.

It boggles the mind. Today, we cannot even keep up with the magazines we subscribe to; most of human knowledge falls off the edge of the Earth, where the map of our erudition shows nothing but serpents. reading the oed

We can never achieve what Milton did; it’s foolish to even try. But shouldn’t we attempt at least some sketch of what was fully painted for the poet? There have been recent books by writers who have read every article in the Encyclopedia Britannica (The Know-It-All, One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, A.J. Jacobs, 2004), The Oxford English Dictionary (Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, Ammon Shea, 2008), or the equivalent of the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf (Great Books, David Denby, 1996), but such ventures are little more than stunts.

To absorb 5,000 years of human culture requires more than memorizing almanacs or dictionaries. It means to have a grounding in the art, literature, theater, music and architecture of our ancestors.

Of course, most of human knowledge, at least in ordinary life, in mass or pop culture and in our individual autobiographies is utterly trivial, and it would be a crime to stuff our brains with it.

But not all knowledge in this information age is trivial. There is still a core of useful literature — and I use the word in the broadest possible sense — that it behooves us to be acquainted with.

It is unfortunate that there is an argument over this. In the imbecilic culture wars that currently ravage the intellectual countryside, the lines are drawn between ignorant armies.

On one side, you find right-wing reactionary fossils fighting to maintain the canon of mainly European classics. On the other side, there is a cadre of victimization that wants to eliminate anything written by dead white males.

A pox on both their houses.

Milton didn’t have to worry about the canon. For him, the canon encompassed everything he could possible encounter.

Since that time, though, we have had to become more selective. Those items we have, as a culture, thought worth perpetuating we have called ”classics” and added them to the list — the canon — of ”required reading.”

But we misunderstand the very idea of culture if we believe the world froze solid with the publication of the Harvard Five Foot Shelf.

Corneille

Corneille

The canon is a garden that must be weeded and tended, and each season may call forth a different harvest.

The problem with the conservative view is that it values a former ”golden age” that our own time never measures up to. It is a sentimental view of life and history, and deaf to the fact that we live now, not in the imaginary ”then.” It is the voice of Cato, of Corneille, of William Bennett — a man of whom it is said he cannot sleep a-nights if he suspects someone, somewhere is having fun.

It is a view of an idealized perfection that we have disastrously fallen short of. It is one form of imbecility.

The problem from the other side is an egalitarianism that is just as moronic. According to them, nothing is better than anything else. Either it is merely a question of personal taste, or it is one of cultural identity.

By their standards, it is elitist to prefer Pablo Neruda to Rod McKuen. Let them, I say, let them renew their subscriptions to Us magazine.

They can deconstruct its gossip to death and find the parallels with Plutarch — if they only knew who Plutarch was.

To consider one “text” more important than another, for them, is to promote colonialism and the subjugation of the downtrodden.

Hence, they judge not by esthetic considerations — it’s all just personal taste to them — but rather by politics.

For them, politics overwhelms aesthetics — overwhelms reason, emotion, common sense and experience. For them, everything has a party line. Ah, but they forget, politics answers no question worth asking.

It also worries me that behind the masks of intellectual argument, I sense a fascism on each side — at the very least a certain priggishness to both sides that any reasonable human finds dangerous.

At bottom, the problem is that both sides make the mistake of believing the canon immutable and fixed. They see the canon as an end, one side blindly despising it and the other defending it like Texans at the Alamo.

But the canon, properly seen, is a beginning, not an end; a foundation, not a roof.

It is the ABC of cultural literacy, the cardinal numbers of thought.

One used to hear the warning that when you have sex, you are having sex with everyone your partner has ever slept with. Well, when you read a book, you are also reading everything that the author read. When you hear music, you also hear everything that composer heard.

Culture is the slow accumulation of thoughts and habits. To read Melville is to hear the diapason of King James under the rich melody of the prose. Every author is the product of multiplier and multiplicand: the writer’s imagination and the long road of history leading to his standing on the curb with his thumb out.

The fact is, we cannot read everything, the way Milton did. We must be more selective. Suggestions for that selective offering is what we call the canon. But it changes constantly: It now includes James Baldwin and Toni Morrison; it includes Derek Wolcott and Yukio Mishima;  The Beatles and Duke Ellington.

The Laocoon

The Laocoon

How can you understand Jacques Derrida without standing firmly on the firm ground of Kant’s a priori? How can you read Isabel Allende without sensing the spirituality of Calderon behind her words?

How can you understand Jeff Koons’ Michael Jackson and Bubbles if you don’t already have the Elgin Marbles in your system? You can’t. How can you get the joke on the back of countless Yellow Pages if you don’t know the Laocoon?

Certainly, the old rationale for learnedness remains: These are great writers, profound thinkers and brilliant painters and sculptors and we cannot consider ourselves educated without their acquaintance. Knowing them is its own excuse. But even more important is that when you hear the echoes in a piece of art, see its ancestry, the piece resonates. Resonance is what gives art and literature is power. kane

Like the mirror scene in Citizen Kane, one man is multiplied into an army. Like Isaac Newton said, if we see further, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants. It is a wise man who knows his parents.