Reading Widely vs. Reading Well

I’m pretty impoverished these days—a predictable consequence of my decision to stay home and focus on my writing full time. For the most part I have adapted well; my personal needs have always been pretty modest. The one thing I really miss, though, is being able to buy books any time I want. Back when I was still suckling the financial aid teat I got used to being able to browse over to Amazon and download the latest installment of whatever Sci-Fi epic I was working through, or order a used copy of some nonfiction book that caught my eye. Those days are over.

True, there’s always the public library, but they don’t always buy the books I’m interested in, and sometimes it takes a couple weeks for my holds to come in.

There are a couple of benefits to my newly constrained access to books, though. One has been that I have a renewed and deepened respect for Project Gutenberg. If you are not familiar with them, they are an organization dedicated to scanning and proofreading public domain books and making them available for free. I’ve actually known about PG since the 1990’s. As an undergraduate I figured out how to download the complete works of Jules Verne to my graphing calculator—an action that was instrumental in my having to repeat freshman calculus.

Now, without the ability to buy any book I want, I find myself downloading a lot of works from PG that I just wouldn’t have gotten around to before. True, some of these are obscure, and some of them aren’t even that good. However, many of them–even most of them, are what are often referred to as “Great” books. Would I have gotten around to reading Spinoza if the other choice had been a pulp mystery? I like to think so, but I doubt it. When I was TA for a Business Ethics course I actually taught Aristotle, yet I never read the Nicomachean Ethics all the way through until just recently.

This brings me to the second benefit I have experienced: being led to consider the difference between reading widely and reading well. Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren dwell on this point at some length in How to Read a Book. They point out that while “the great writers have also been great readers”, many of them actually had access to and read relatively few books. Quality of the books and the effort to study them are the important factors. According to them, a person who had read many books but understood them poorly was known to the ancients as a “sophomore”. In another passage, they warn that someone who reads widely but not well is in danger of becoming an idiot savant.

As I read books, I like to add them to the “books” section of my Facebook profile. I think it expresses some sort of primitive hording impulse, like a squirrel with nuts. Right now I have 905 of them there, which is a few more than most of my friends. I scrolled through the list after reading How to Read a Book. I can’t deny that the collection, taken as a whole, does look distinctly sophomoric. While it is true that there are plenty of serious books on the list, over half of it is straight-up pulp brain candy. Does Norman’s Slave Girl of Gor really belong between Hamilton’s The Greek Way and Miyamoto’s Book of Five Rings?   Am I actually proud that I have actually made my way through that many novels by Piers Anthony or Robert Asprin or that I can analyze major plot arcs and thematic elements across dozens Star Trek novels?   Actually, I am a bit proud of that last accomplishment but clearly, idiot savantism is a real possibility.

So what should I be reading? Well, Adler and Van Doren don’t leave us hanging. Appendix A of How to Read a Book contains a list of books by 147 authors which “would be worth your while to read.” These, they say, are “hard books” which will force one to think and improve his reading skills. In the introduction to the list, they also mention that, since the main list does not include any lyric poetry, one might want to read The Oxford Book of English Verse, Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, and Rodman’s One Hundred Modern Poems, which round the list out to 150 items.

Adler and Van Doren say that you are doing fine if you make it through three or four great books in a year, but I bet that I could average an author a month and still get quite a bit out of it. I can make it through the whole list in 12 1/2 years. Every work listed is available either from Project Gutenberg or my public library. Who wants to do it with me?

Ok, I probably won’t end up reading every book on the list, and I certainly won’t finish an author a month. I still think that the list is important. If I want to improve my output as a writer and editor, I need to insure that the quality of input is high. These are the sort of books that I should be reading, and I really am going to try to pick books off this list as much as possible.

First up on the list is Homer’s Iliad. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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