Thursday, November 19, 2015

Perspectives for reading

Chip: "I need to take today's paper to school."

Hi: "But I haven't read it yet."

Chip: "We're studying current events, Dad. I can't take yesterday's paper."
Hi & Lois, Nov. 17, 2015

Her custom was to let back issues pile up for at least six months before reading them, for she insisted that this was sufficient time to put things into proper perspective ...
Donna Leon, A Sea of Troubles

There you have two opposing views on reading, and they can apply to reading just about anything. One is represented by Chip, the teenage boy in the Hi & Lois comic strip. To him, yesterday's news is old news, not current events. To others like him, yesterday's best-selling books are irrelevant books. They aren't interested in reading them, or any other books, unless "everybody" else is reading them. Those who complain about the old magazines in doctor's waiting rooms and barber shops may also be members of this club.

Then there are those represented by Paola, the wife of Commissario Brunetti in Donna Leon's mystery A Sea of Troubles. She lets her weekly magazines stack up for six months before she tackles them, appreciating the perspective this gives her. After six months she has a better sense of what's actually important and therefore what's worth reading. In this group also are those who read older books, not just the classics but lesser books that have been around for a few years and are no longer popular, if they ever were.

I am currently reading A Sea of Troubles, which was published in 2001. I guess that reveals which side I take. I read The Girl on the Train while it was still the No. 1 bestseller, so I do read some current books, and I read review copies of current books, but mostly I read books that have been on my shelves a few years. Sometimes I discover I no longer have any interest in reading a book and even wonder why I acquired it in the first place. Other books I am still keen to read. Perhaps that's what Paola considers "proper perspective."

C.S. Lewis taught old books, but he wrote new books. Thus he had an interest in both. Yet, in one of his essays, he argued, "But if he (the ordinary reader) must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it."

That may be overstatement, but he has a point, and again it is about perspective. Older books, especially literary works and nonfiction books on certain subjects, like theology, have been tested by time. Instead of being influenced by what others are reading now, you can be influenced by what others have read in the past.

Over the summer I read two or three issues of Smithsonian that were each more than 20 years old. Their being that old didn't seem to adversely affect my reading experience much. There were a few articles I ignored because they were obviously dated, but those relating to history, art, literature and natural history, always my favorite subjects for Smithsonian articles, were as interesting as they would have been decades ago. The ads were probably more interesting because of the perspective gained through all those years.

As for newspapers, I worked on them for more than 40 years, so I well know how quickly they change from today's news to tomorrow's trash. Yet from the perspective of all those years in the business I know that today's news is impacted by yesterday's news. And despite what Chip may think, current events remain current for more than a single day.

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