The Judgment of Paris

Paul Raven at Velcro City Tourist Board nails his colors to the mast, and sails against the flags of literary elitism:

The issue I have is with the assumption that people need to have read the ‘classics’ to have any valid claim to being a reader. It’s this attitude, I think, that drives so many people away from reading as a hobby – because, like enthusiasts of any pursuit, readers can be very snobbish about reading, and that “what do you mean, you’ve never read {x}?” attitude has one effect and one effect only – it makes the accused feel inadequate.

Why should people read the works of Jane Austen if they don’t feel the urge? What’s wrong with them sticking to their John Grisham, their Lee Child, their (dare I say it) science fiction? Here’s a confession: I’ve never read any Tolstoy. Not once.

… Why in the name of all that is good should anyone be made to feel embarrassed or humiliated for not having read A Tale of Two Cities?

My comment: I respectfully suggest that some things are good in and of themselves, not merely because they please our peculiar taste or passing fancy. One of the things worthwhile in life is great literature: is it part of the legacy left by our forebearers, the rich gifts of the past that have been preserved for the pleasure of modern generations.

There are at least seven reasons I can see why it is good and profitable to be what Mr. Raven calls an elitist (which is his word for what I might call piety or justice; that is, honoring one’s fathers or awarding credit where credit is due). These are reasons why one should read great books aside from merely personal pleasure:

The foremost reason is so that one will develop the proper tastes, so that one’s palate, so to speak, is trained to accept the good and reject the bad. A gourmet can eat the occasional chili dog slathered with Cheez-Whiz or can of Spam (remember the original meaning of that word, folks?), but in general he has a finer appreciation of food.

The second is that great books are great, by and large, because they contain all that a good book contains, but more of it, more richly developed.

I was reading Jack Kirby’s MACHINE MAN at the same time I was reading John Milton’s PARADISE LOST. It was really nifty when the fighting robot used his magnetic jet-shoes to repel the enemy attack: all Kirby’s fight scenes are well blocked out, and exciting to the eye. But the war in heaven described by John Milton was sublime: it was beyond comparison. Superlatives fail. Had I a tongue of brass, I could not describe the fury of battle he describes: such as, to set forth great things by small, if, nature’s concord broke, among the constellations war were sprung, two planets, rushing from aspect malign of fiercest opposition, in mid-sky should combat, and their jarring spheres confound. Had I been raised on a diet of MACHINE MAN, I would not see that Milton was doing what Kirby did, only better. Had I not read Homer and Virgil, I would not have seen what Milton was trying to do, or how he was both honoring and surpassing his predecessors.

The third is that such books improve the soul. I made a manful attempt to read MOBY DICK just because it was a great book, not because I had any particular interest in the work itself. I found it boring, and put it down, defeated. Of all things, it was a role-playing game that revived my interest in it: I wanted to play a character based on Ahab in an online game, and so I casually looked into this long, boring work for some choice quotes. I found out that the book was not just good, it was great. The whole of it is spiced with a wicked humor I did not notice at first, a pagan irony both in the theme and in the execution. The very scenes dismissed as boring, the longish sections on whaling minutia, contain some of the funniest and moving little bits in the book, or in all literature. But beneath his outward Big Fish story, Melville is actually talking about deep matters, the kind that make you stop and think: thoughts one can wrestle.

When I think about the quality of leadership, of obsession, of self-will, I think of Ahab, poor maimed Ahab, his brows clamped with madness as if by the Iron Crown of Lombardy. When I think about pity, I think of poor Pip, who lost his wits at sea. When I think of loyalty misplaced, or the tension between what the laws of man and the laws of God demand, I think of Starbuck. When I think of inborn nobility unimproved by civilization, I think of Queequeg of Rokovoko. It is not down on any map; true places never are. And I wonder and I ponder. To pass life by without having wrestled with such thoughts is a loss, and a loss all the more sad because one will never know what one has lost.

If it were not for the deep respect I have for such books, the very thing Paul Raven dismisses as “elitism” I should never have made an attempt at that book. Had I not be educated at a school that taught me the difference between a great book and a merely good one, I should not have had the background, the palate, needed to savor this fine work. And what is funny is MOBY DICK is not even the most famous of famous books.  

The fourth reason is that to know and to read the great books makes one a member of the family of all those who have eaten from the same dish. You can look each other eye to eye: no matter what separates you, you are brothers. The great minds throughout all history are men who have read the works from the same canon. Kant is in a conversation with Hume who is raising objections against Descartes, who is arguing with Aquinas, who is quoting Aristotle, who is refuting an error in Plato: and if Marx had only read his Aristotle and been persuaded, he would not have made the same error Plato made. What time traveler would not invite all these great minds, whether you agree or disagree with them, to a feast and symposium to dine and to discuss the most interesting matters under the heavens or above them? Well, friends, all it takes to join the feast is the patience to open a book the world says is boring.

The conversation has been going on for centuries. It might take a little work at first to get up to speed, and there may be threads in the discussion you find distasteful or boring or even evil: but once you are in the conversation, you are in.

The fifth reason is that reading great books increases the pleasure one gets from merely good books. Seeing the heroism of longsuffering Ulysses allows me to appreciate the similar patient suffering of the characters in a Dashiell Hammett whodunit, or, more to the point, of a character in a Keith Laumer book, who studiously followed the style and motif of Dashiell Hammett. (Read the first chapter of DINOSAUR BEACH, if you don’t believe me: this is what Hammett would write if Hammett wrote SF.) 

An example: I read Mr. Pullman’s THE GOLDEN COMPASS, and found it perfectly delightful (the sequel less so, the third book in the series not at all, I’m afraid). My pleasure in reading was increased when I recognized the Homeric metaphors used by the author to describe the combat of the armored polar bears. No matter how much I enjoy reading fantasy, had I merely ever read Tolkien and Eddison and Dunsany, and not read Homer, I would simply have missed one of the little pleasures the author gracefully placed in his book for his readers. I would have eaten the ice cream and missed the cherry on top. You are not doing Mr. Pullman any favors by missing the goodies he puts in his work.

My point here is that if something good reminded you of something great you’ve read, you have an opportunity to like it better, the same way, for example, you might appreciate a song because it reminds you of your first date with your wife. You get misty eyed when they are playing “our song”well, the same thing happens when you come across one of “our heroes”, the eternal hero you have seen before in other guises in other stories by other authors.  But you have to read the greats to have them in your memory to call upon, the same way you have to go out on dates to fall in love.

The sixth reason is that it takes humility to be an elitist, whereas being a populist is the soul of arrogance. An elitist, someone who likes great books because they are great, not because he likes them, is as humble as a mountaineer standing before a titanic, mysterious, unclimbed peak. To climb that mountain is work, at least at first, we all agree. But once you have achieved the summit, and all the world is under your heel, how far you can see! What things those content with lower perspectives will not view! The humility of a mountaineer is this: he does not think of himself as he climbs, he thinks of the rock under this fingers and toes. He did not make the mountain, he is not the one who piled it up. That is the work of former years, previous generations, so to speak.

The populist, on the other hand, looks in the mirror, and seeing only his own little self dressed in his own little circles’ little fashion, preens and says he is as large as the mountain. Who can actually prove he is taller than me? (says the populist) “By my measuring rod I have invented for myself this day, I say I am taller! My taste is just as good as his. He likes the Venus de Milo, and I like Charlie’s Angels It’s the same. He reads HAMLET, I read GREEN EGGS AND HAM. To each his own!”

There is nothing wrong with reading Dr. Seuss. I dare say I have read his works far, far more often than I have read the Bard of Avon. And I would read him in a box, and I would read him with a fox. I would read Seuss here and there, and I would read him anywhere. And I never did finish Henry the IV Part III (or was it Henry the III part IV?). But, honestly, to equate the two is an act of mental sabotage against your own ability to make judgments. It is the pride of Lucifer to look at earthly things, fair as they are, and hold them supreme above heavenly things: worse still, it is the absurdity of the White Queen of the Looking Glass world, who believes six impossible things before breakfast.  

The seventh reason is that it is merely sloth to tell a lazy, flabby person it is good to be lazy and flabby. This is true both or physical flabbiness and for intellectual flabbiness. See here: we cannot all be athletes, and we cannot all be scholars, but we can respect athletes for their physical beauty and prowess, and we can honor scholars for their learning. Anything less places us in that particular hell described in “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut: “The year was 2081, and everyone was finally equal.”

The main part of that laziness is parochialism. If you don’t read great books, you think everyone thinks like you and your circle. You have not stepped in your imagination into the boots of a gentleman of the Sixteenth Century, or the spurs of a Knight of the Sixth. You have not read the luxurious DIVINE COMEDY or the sparse and puritanical PILGRIM’S PROGRESS, or traveled with Aeneas to the Underworld or sailed with bold Odysseus beyond the sunset. Reading science fiction written by your contemporaries is not the same: no matter how imaginative, these fine gentlemen who write speculative fiction are of your world and share many or your biases. To look with other eyes, you need to enter another world: the world of a previous century, each one different from the next. These are the worlds your fathers and their fathers made, and that we have inherited. Have you no duty, none at all, to understand what has been put into your hands? They thought about the same joys and sorrows we think about, but they thought about them not in the same way. Do you want to see through their eyes? Read their works.

The reason why people talk as if it is shameful not to have read great books is simple: to be ignorant of the good things in life is nothing to boast about. To be willfully ignorant is even less worthy of public display.

Now, having said that, have I read all these wonderful books Paul Raven mentions? No, I fear not. Instead of reading TALE OF TWO CITIES, I read THE DEATH GIVER by Maxwell Grant, where The Shadow has to stop a scientific madman from using chlorine gas to commit a series of grisly blackmail-murders on behalf of the Secret Seven. I found out that the weed of crime bears bitter fruit: crime does not pay! But what would I have found out if I had read Charles Dickens instead? I might have known why it was the best of times and the worst of times, or what makes a man take another’s place even before the guillotine. I might have found out what made such sacrifice a far, far better thing to do. Perhaps it would have been a far, far better thing to read.

It is an embarrassing gap in my reading. I am man enough to admit the flaw; I cannot join Mr. Raven in the idea that it is mean or wrong-headed to have standards, or that it is somehow cruel to have high standards. I can admire things I cannot appreciate.

Some works are sublime, meant to last forever, to be read and reread until the work becomes a treasured part of one’s soul; some are pulp, meant to thrill the reader. Now, there is nothing really wrong with pulps, for the same reason there is nothing really wrong with a comely peasant lass who picks her teeth and laughs with her mouth openbut it would have been blasphemy for Paris to award the apple of Eris to her, not when the embodiments of wisdom, love and majesty were standing naked before his eyes.