Friday, March 28, 2014

Insights on reading

As mysteries, Ian Sansom's Mobile Library books don't amount to much. Their strengths lie in vivid characters, comic dialogue and situations and, not of least importance in my view, the author's reflections, through his characters, on literature and reading in general. Here are some of the comments I found most interesting The Books Stops Here, the book I reviewed here two days ago.

"Eileen believed passionately in what you might call the trickle-down theory of literature; according to her, the reading of Booker Prize-winning novels by Tumdrum's library-borrowing elite would lead inevitably and inexorably to the raising of social and cultural values among the populace at large."

I have commented previously on the idea that great literature, like great art in general, carries moral value, that better reading can make us better people. Any correlation, and I agree there may be some, is minimal. If the people who wrote those great books were not saints, why should we expect more from those who read them?

"Israel's reading had always been erratic and undisciplined; there were huge chunks missing in his knowledge, while other areas were grossly-over-represented... he was a kind of mental hunchback -- misproportioned, a freak."

Aren't most of us "mental hunchbacks" in this respect? We tend to read those books that interest us and ignore the rest. My reading is probably more varied than that of most people because I have been reviewing books for more than 40 years, but even I have significant gaps. Some great authors I have missed altogether. One of the qualities I like about Israel Armstrong, Sansom's main character, is that he worries about this sort of thing.

"There were, of course, some books he could see on his shelf, in his mind's eye, that he didn't regret -- his Kurt Vonneguts, for example. How could he possibly -- how could anyone possibly -- regret Kurt Vonnegut?"

My own regrets have more to do with buying books than reading them. I regret spending money on books I quickly realized I wouldn't like or, more seriously, books I later found I already owned. I regret all those books I haven't read yet and may, in fact, never get around to. I also regret that I have forgotten so many books almost in less time than it took to read them.

"He was his books; and his books were him."

I got a sense of this idea last when I visited the Little White House in Key West and examined the shelves of books once owned and read by Harry S. Truman. Most were not classics or even books I had ever heard of, but rather books printed in the 1940s and 1950s that appealed to Truman but, apparently, to relatively few others. More than the furniture, the photographs or even the "The buck stops here" sign on his desk, these books revealed who Truman really was.

I wonder what my books say about me.

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