I have spent the last few months reading A Serious Book about Serious Books. Morning, Noon and Night: Finding the Meaning of Life’s Stages Through Books is by Arnold Weinstein, a professor of comparative literature at Brown University.
Morning Noon and Night sits on my night table atop Antony Beevor’s one volume history of World War II. I decided to restrict myself to no other reading until I finish these. Prof. Weinstein’s book is both personal and erudite, exploring how great works of literature impact us as they tell us the story of growing up and then growing old, supplanted by the young.
I hung in there gamely during the “growing up” phase of the book. The “growing old, supplanted by the young” phase is tougher going, I admit. I’m hardly in my dotage, but chapter titles such as “Fathers Undone” (Lear, Pere Goriot, Willy Loman), “The Old in Love” (Miss Ha visham, von Aschenbach, Blanche DeBois) and “The Final Harvest” (Isak Borg in “Wild Strawberries,” old Santiago, Rip Van Winkle) make me depressed. Weinstein can write with luminous beauty about the saddest things, describing aging love this way: “Unlike the hunger of desire, this love incorporates memory, transcends the retinal, makes room even for death.” And yet even so, it’s painful to wrap my mind around the idea that reading literature as one ages can also be a way to learn about what it means to age into finality. Or as Weinstein puts it succinctly, “…crawling toward death is okay notionally but unbearable experientially.”
Perhaps that is why my rate of reading has slowed to a crawl. So Joanna Scott’s article in The Nation from a few years back on the virtues of difficult reading was both refreshing to reread--and a little chastening.
She cites our growing preference for and familiarity with online texts—portable and instantly gratifying. And she asks “who wants to spend precious free hours figuring out a William Gaddis novel when they could be relaxing with Netflix?” The answer is supposed to be, “I do.” Because she’s championing the kind of serious reading that requires patience, commitment, a comfy chair and a good reading light.
She says, “education offers the potential for independence and empowerment, so let’s not replace difficult novels with easy ones, or pretend that the two are the same.”
And in theory, I agree. Though I can’t help but remind myself that I am reading a book about great books (and plodding very slowly through it) in lieu of reading many of those great books themselves. And that, in spite of my initially scrupulously enforced ban on reading anything other than the two on my night table, I have spent my free hours this week sitting outside in the unaccustomed sunshine devouring Elizabeth Bard’s books, Lunch in Paris and Picnic in Provence. I’m trying to convince myself that this is worthwhile and edifying reading. After all, I can understand the French before she translates it for the reader. And I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Provence—doesn’t that justify reading about it?
But the truth is that I like Bard’s easy, breezy style. I’m nosy about her life, her recipes, her anecdotes and the French countryside. (Balzac’s Pere Goriot’s grim nineteenth-century Parisian boarding house and ungrateful daughters are a heavy lift by comparison.) When Balzac describes the furniture—“old, rotten, shaky, cranky, worm-eaten, halt, maimed, one-eyed, rickety, and ramshackle”—I feel weighted in my body.
But when Bard describes the French cookies, sables, as “pebbled with chopped black olives, rosemary and freshly grated Parmesan,” I find myself fantasizing about my nascent herb garden just how good it will smell in bloom. Or wanting to pull out my madeleine pans and bake up a batch.
The serious books await me. I’ll get back to them. I’ll follow Joanna Scott’s advice that we “not stop reading the kind of books that keep teaching us to read.” I’ll keep Weinstein’s earnest observation in mind that literature “possesses a bare-bones practicality, indeed a utility that we need to recover: it helps us toward a richer grasp of our own estate.”
And maybe, one day, I’ll tackle Proust. He wrote about cookies, too.