Roman Calendar

Random Greco-Roman Image

Monday, August 8, 2011

Reading is a very special and inestimable pleasure

Two well-known Shakespearean actors: Maurice Evans & Charlton Heston
"Human see, human do."

George Taylor (Charlton Heston): "Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape." quoted in the current blockbuster.
Most famous quote by a Shakespearan actor in the 20th century (Maurice Evans as Dr. Zaius)

Maurice Evans had fun in Hollywooed for laughs and lucre
"Dr. Zira, I must caution you. Experimental brain surgery on these creatures is one thing, and I'm all in favor of it. But your behavior studies are another matter. To suggest that we can learn anything about the simian nature from a study of man is sheer nonsense. Why, man is a nuisance. He eats up his food supply in the forest, then migrates to our green belts and ravages our crops. The sooner he is exterminated, the better. It's a question of simian survival."
Also "The Forbidden Zone was once a paradise. Your breed made a desert of it, ages ago."

Reading for pleasure is a vital part of reading development. In order to read well one must have an adequate vocabulary and the discipline to concentrate. One does not develop vocabulary by watching TV sit-coms. One does not develop vocabulary having casual conversations. One develops vocabulary and cultural literacy by a steady habit of reading and when one is young, in particular, by being read to. I enjoy recorded books occasionally as a change of pace but for me they could not replace books because, frankly, there are not many quality recorded books and certainly the range is very small. Book reading seems today almost as much a minority pleasure as in Fahrenheit 451. Yet, in the end, reading and writing are both inestimable pleasures. One is foolish not to give reading a try.

Of course, some of the reading we do will not be for pleasure. Reading tax information or reading an application for a passport. However, I believe reading is a habit and the pleasures of reading are developed by choice and whim. If you enjoy reading adventure or about hunting and fishing or sports or military history great. As a boy I was an avid reader of sports biographies and comic books. Then I graduated to science fiction. I read the entire collections of autors I liked. And of course science fiction led me to read H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, Steven Vincent Benet, Jules Verne, and Joseph Conrad.

You don't have to be a specialist. You can develop an amateur interest in the subject and as you become an aficionado you will enjoy it even more. I also believe there is a place for reading aloud. Some prose and some poetry is best when read aloud. Recently I was hiking round the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. As it is my habit I also carry some small books with me to read in a spare moment. I have not yet graduated to Kindle or Nook. I enjoy having a physical book which I can carry with me and where I can underline the words. I enjoy reading the WSJ on line when I am on vacation or in a remote location. There it is a delight to have access in a place where there are no kiosks. Nevertheless, I prefer reading the newspaper and when I like articles I can keep them. They are already printed out. One thing people do not mention is that the permant book like the permanent magazine article or the printed encourage re-reading. Re-reading fine literature is one of the great pleasures of reading. On-line articles have the great virtue of being easy to share and interactive, which is wonderful in its own way. But I rarely re-read or closely read on-line articles. If I like a book review I print it out to keep for future reference.

The 20th century scholar, author and teacher Gilbert Highet gave good advice on reading: Highet recommends to readers to read for pleasure and mature their reading pleasures. Highet believed it was important to choose an “important author” and read all of his or her work. He argues that such a regimen helps readers to “escape from themselves.” It certainly will develop taste and stamina for reading. Highet felt “it is also valuable to push directly through the works of a good author, trying to see them as a single creation, appreciating their wholeness and their uniqueness and leaving the details for later study.”

I have followed his advice with a few authors, Conrad, Hemingway, Orwell, Twain, Camilo José Cela, Emile Zola, Cervantes, and a lot but not quite all of Chesterton, or Dickens or Shakespeare. Of course, I have followed Highet’s advice with his own work. Many of his books remain in print; The Classical Tradition, The Art of Teaching, Man’s Unconquerable Mind are enduring books. I consider Highet’s best essays on par with anything Orwell or Chesterton wrote. Most of his books and essays are still are in print. A great anthology could be compiled just publishing his numerous book reviews. I have read dozens of them from the 1950’s and 1960’s.

In addition, Highet, suggests reading about “one single important and interesting subject: for instance, the paintings of the cave men; or the agony of modern music; or the rebirth of calligraphy; or recent theories of the creation and duration of the universe.” Once again, not everyone is going to have the same tastes but one of the purposes of reading widely is to acquaint yourself with different subject areas. Surely one or another will be more interesting to the individual reader. As a teacher I have always tried to encourage extra credit and individual choice in reading as much as possible.

Highet also believe it was important to read across a whole variety of genres, not merely fiction or merely non-fiction but also travel writing, biography, history, poetry, drams, stories, novels. Highet said “we might read a large selection of poems and prose passages selected in order to illuminate one single aspect of the world. One such volume would go into a pocket or a handbag and yet last all summer.” Ravitch’s American Reader or his English Reader are some good modern examples but there are also the excellent Norton Anthologies. The Library of America has a wonderful series of anthologies, American Sea Writing, Reporting WWII, True Crime: an American Anthology, Baseball: a Literary Anthology and The Lincoln Anthology.

Reading Highet –who wrote this over fifty years ago is sometimes poignant because he often shows to me how he is closer to Victorian Scotland than we are.  Also he also has become from being my contemporary to becoming a historic figure for us living in the 20th century.  Highet wrote most of his best work 50 and 60 years ago.

Highet wrote: “ might decide to spend the summer with a single great or at least a single interesting man. For example, every doctor should know The Life of Sir William Osler by Harvey Cushing, and after reading that fine book he would enjoy himself if he went on to read Osler’s own writings. Osler never tired of complaining that most doctors had minds too limited and too confined to the physical symptoms which they observed in the routine of their practice. He kept trying to enlarge his own mind and spirit, and his books will therefore enlarge the mind and spirit of his readers, whether they are of the medical profession or not.”

It seems to me Mr. Highet lived in a happier, more sane world in which scholars and teacher could safely assume SOME of their students, neighbor and readers would be broadly educated and have wide interests beyond their own narrow field. Highet assumed there were a well-read general reading public who would seek delight and entertainment as well as enlightenment in the books they read. Highet was sure that if they read and re-read “Great Books” and the best of modern literature he or she would find self-improvement to their liking.

Personally, I cannot imagine a life without books, without literature and without poetry and song. Pop culture and the movies are mildly entertaining but very superficial. The best that can be said for them is that they are an easy shared pleasure.

But even entertaining films like The Rise of the Planet Apes have their literary precursors. La Planète des singes 1963, (Planet of the Apes)of course was first a French novel by Pierre Boulle. Boulle’s book was also influenced by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, H.G. Well’s The Island of Dr. Moreau.

In this last novel there is an a wise “Ape-Man” - A who considers himself equal to men and capable of “big think.” Even earlier than H.G. Wells is Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island (1874). Also influential was Stephen Vincent Benet’s famous short story “By the Waters of Babylon” (1937) originally called the “Place of the Gods”.

Benet’s work, which was written as a reaction to the Nazi fire-bombing of the Spanish city of Guernica is fascinating because at first one is not certain of the time and place. We find out that the Place of the Gods is actually the bombed out ruins of New York City. It is also fascinating because it was written long before the development of the Atomic bomb or missles yet Benet’s seemed to know that once world war broke out advances in military technology would be ever more dangerous and might even destroy most of humanity. The complete story can be read on the internet.

From Richard Connell's famous story; here I saw the movie first. The movie is fairly close to the book except they added a sexy Fay Wray to make it more interesting and to allow for a more chipper dialogue.  Many adventures add a romantic element to add drama and make it more appealing.
There is nothing wrong with reading comic book versions or abridged versions; they can be very entertaining and may lead the reader to read the original later.  I cheerfully admit to having read most of the classics from age 5 to 12 in the Classic Illustrated version.  I read some of them dozens of times.
Flight from the Plaent of the Apes (In German); a book dervied from the movie
The idea of human decline and the fall of civilization due to war, disease or uncontrolled science is a theme seen over and over again. One of the reasons it appeals to people is that we are all fascinated by the very real possibility of the fall of our civilization and the possibility of a “New Dark Age made more sinister and more protracted,” as Churchill himself remarked during WWII. “by the lights of perverted science.” Here there are a plethora of thrilling stories: Well’s The Time Machine (1895) and his The Shape of Things to Come (1933), Nightfall (1941) by Isaac Asimov, or his Foundation Trilogy (1951) “There will come soft rains” (1950) by Ray Bradbury. Then there is I am Legend (1954). Another fine thriller is The White Plague (1982) by Frank Herbert. Film, it seems to me, is very dependent on literature for its best stories and inspiration. In other words even your movie going pleasure is improved by a knowledge of classic film and classic books!

We recall Cicero's speech, Pro Archia, with its famous defense of literature and quoted by Petrarch, Jefferon, Gibbon, Toynbee, Highet and countless others. . Haec studia adolescentiam alunt…"These studies sustain youth and entertain old age, they are an ornament during prosperity. They offer a refuge and solace in hard times; they delight us when we are at home but do not hinder us in the world outside. They are with us in the evenings, in our wanderings and travels and when in the country..."

Petrarch was very fond of this quotation and whenever Cicero used the phrase "litterarum lumen", "the light of literature", Petrarch drew a sketch in the margin  of a candle  (still used as a symbol for enlightenment today).
Sometimes it is good to read serious literature and other times it is good to slum and enjoy more popular genres such as sports, survival literature, adventure or romance. All reading is good in that it sharpens the mind and improves one’s fluency and enriches one’s vocabulary and cultural literacy. Nonetheless, one need not read Moby Dick every day nor write it; one can merely correspond with friends and read as the whim suits.

In conclusion, we may not all be Joseph Conrads or Hemingways or Andrew Roberts or Stephen Ambrose or Edith Wharton but we can write book reviews, blogs and letters.

And this too is part of the Republic of Letters.

And we can read and share our reading experiences with others -for our own edification as well as for others.

Reading is one of the greatest and most lasting pleasures for those wise enough to cultivate this habit.

If you want to be a reader it really is very simple and not that expensive.
Just read. And by all means read for pleasure as much as you can.

Yes, I often tell my students “Try it! You might like it.”

Or as Unamuno said: “leer, leer, leer!” READ, READ, READ.

Wise advice by the most prolific of Spanish authors.

Note: (Cicero Pro Archia

Poeta 7.16).

No comments: