Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Discovering Landmarks

From Clifton Fadiman's The Lifetime Reading Plan, which I found in a nice hardcover edition for a dime at the library rack:

I do not wish to claim too much for The Lifetime Reading Plan.  It is not magic.  It does not automatically make you or me an "educated man."  It offers no solution to life's ultimate mysteries.  It will not make you "happy" -- such claims are made by tooth pastes, motorcars, and deodorants, not by Plato, Dickens and Hemingway.  It will simply help to make your interior life more meaningful and interesting, as a love affair does, or some task calling forth your deepest energies.

Like many other men, I have been reading these books, off and on, for most of my life.  One thing I've found out is that it's easy enough to say that they enlerge you, but rather difficult to prove it in adance.  It is less difficult to prove (you'll sens it in short order) that they act like a developing fluid on film.  That is, they bring into consciousness what you didn't know you knew.  Even more than tools of self-enhancement, they are tools of self-discovery.  This notion is not mine.  You will find it in Plato who, as with many other matters, thought of it first.  Socrates called himself a midewife of ideas.  A great book is often such a midwife, delivering to full existence what has been coiled like an embryo in the dark, silent depths of the brain."

Since Fadiman is very clear that he was requested to compile the list and that he thinks a "Reading Plan" is only a start, he probably wouldn't mind me putting CS Lewis's caveat alongside (from a letter he wrote -- HT:  The Scriptorium):

I don’t feel at all qualified to contribute to a ‘master’ list of writings. The languages I don’t know are of course very much more numerous than those I know; and even in the languages I do know there are a great many books I have not read. And I rather doubt whether a list of masterpieces picked from all over the world –mostly, I presume to be read in translations?- is a v. useful thing.

I would rather see young men beginning from where they are and being led on from one thing to another: e.g. that Milton shd. lead them either to Virgil and Homer (and therefore to a really serious study of Latin or Greek) or to Dante (and therefore to a whole course of Medieval and Italian studies). That, after all, is how every educated person’s development has actually come about.

The sort of culture one can get from the 100 or 1000 Best Books read in isolation from the societies and literatures that begot them seems to me like the sort of knowledge of Europe I shd. get from staying at big hotels in Paris, Berlin, Rome, etc. It wd. be far better to know intimately one little district, going from village to village, getting to know the local politics, jokes, wines, and cheeses. Or so it seems to me.
I am not sure if Lewis's analogy quite holds because we are talking about citizens who weren't educated like he was.  My son had to read Whirligig for sophomore language arts.   I'm sure it's good reading, but it means that this book was the Big Hotel and if he ever wants to read The Divine Comedy or Sophocles, chances are he will have to read it on his own.    The Big Hotels are falling into ruin as the tourists hang out in youth hostels and eat at the Paris McDonald's and maybe snap a quick picture of Notre Dame Cathedral on their cells as they pass by.

So there is a need for the guided tours like Fadiman's.   We are more like the barbarian tribes nowadays than we are like passive tourists.  If we are to inherit our tradition and make it our own, we may need to listen to someone from the old school so we know what to destroy and what to preserve and cherish.

Still, CS Lewis shows us how the old wonders are best to be approached -- not with passive, indifferent respect, but with a personal level of engagement, as if it really mattered.   As Lewis says:

beginning from where they are and being led on from one thing to another
or as Fadiman says:

delivering to full existence what has been coiled like an embryo in the dark, silent depths of the brain.

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm . . . I think the "local area" I know best (and really want to - and ought to - know much better) is that cloud of glory around Donne and Herbert and the other metaphysical poets. I feel like a dunce sometimes around friends whose areas are much, much older (the Greeks, the Fathers), but this reminds me that it's okay to love what I really love, and to let my friends (Donne and Herbert) lead me on to the past, rather than just sit there and feel embarrassed that I haven't traveled much.

    Thanks for the post!


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