A celebration of the power of great books, and the capacity to improve life

September 07, 1997|By Michael Pakenham

Why do you read? I am not always sure why I choose a book, or why I pick one and not another, though I do it for a living. I would read were I not paid to. But why?

It's perfectly respectable to read for any purpose that can put words on paper. There are utilitarian intents (instructional or soporific), delights (escapist or simply entertaining), duties (professional or educational). But there are books that go in none of those piles. Most readers seem to come to them for reasons that cannot be duplicated with any other kind of experience.

There is a line of Andrew Delbanco's that somehow for me explains beautifully why. Those most important books authenticate "the idea that individual human beings can break free of the structures of thought into which they are born and that, by reimagining the world, they can change it."

Delbanco uses that expression to declare the purpose of his own latest book, "Required Reading: Why Our American Classics Matter Now" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 226 pages. $25). He is the Columbia humanities scholar who wrote "The Puritan Ordeal" and "The Death of Satan."

Belief in the capacity to affect for the better the course of history is a gloriously romantic, affirming notion. With that confident, constructive optimism as a foundation, Delbanco proceeds to make a powerful, instructive case for the importance of genius -- and thus for the immortality of works of genius.

Slapping faces

That very idea slaps hard the face of much of the prevailing academic culture theory in the United States and industrial Europe. In the beginning of his argument, he draws a deep line in the sand, separating serious writing about literature into two "warring camps": One contains the "instrumentalist critics ... [who] are chiefly interested in books for what they reveal about the political dimensions of human experience." The other is inhabited by the "appreciationists ... [who] celebrate books as sources of aesthetic delight."

That may sound a bit high-flying. Actually, it is stone simple. The Bad Guys, the aesthetic politicians, mostly have come up in the last generation. "Literature began to be talked about with the metaphors of incarceration -- as a 'prison-house of language' or a 'hermeneutic circle,' " Delbanco writes. "Culture came to be thought of as totalitarian, and books, no less than gulags, became instruments of domination. What was lost, along with our capacity for pleasure, was our sense of proportion, our humor, and our common sense."

Which brings on a marvelous line, brimming with validity: "We have turned literary texts into excretions through which, while holding our noses, we search for traces of the maladies of our culture."

Rejecting that as trivial, even tawdry, Delbanco begins with Herman Melville, celebrating his "sacramental style." He proceeds through Thoreau, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln, Henry Adams, Stephen Crane and as many others. He writes with powerful enthusiasm, love for the richness of language, for the intricacy of the ways in which it is used. He celebrates movingly the conflict of irony and ambiguity on one hand and the recognition of deep human values on the other.

I am not certain the Melville piece would make anyone who finds Melville heavy lifting any more eager to go back to his work. But it makes a powerful case for the importance and brilliance of his mind and soul. The argument is that great writing matters -- has immortal value beyond being a plaything of self-indulgent and self-perpetuating culture theorists.

The strength of the book is its remarkably convincing assertion -- flying in the face of the cant of much of the academy -- that there are both genius and profound humane understanding in American literature of 100 and 200 years ago that cannot be found in contemporary writings, and without which there is an unbridgeable gap in the understanding of anyone concerned with the nature of the nation or of its citizens.

Delbanco does do wondrous service in savaging the political correctors. A grand example is his analysis of the mutilation of the text of Edith Wharton's unfinished "The Buccaneers," which was "completed" by Marion Mainwaring, and internally edited to please the mandates of political correctness.

What about integrity?

A wonderful line: "Mainwaring's tampering raises the question of whether we have reached the point in our attitude toward artistic integrity when we would applaud, say, the improver of the old masters who walked into the National Gallery in London and started to color in Leonardo's cartoon?"

In his chapter on Henry Adams, who seems almost childlike, Delbanco draws a startlingly lovely conclusion:

"Adams was driven by the peculiar spirit that has always both inspired and afflicted the greatest American writers: by an unembarrassed willingness to express the child's horror at the ubiquity of death, by the urge, as if in bedside prayer, to speak directly with God."

His gemlike account of having read Richard Wright's "Native Son" first when he was 16, again apparently when he was a university student and then finally as a mature scholar, is a fascinating and instructive insight into the process of reading and rereading books of importance.

The book's very final sentence: Regarding the writers of the books that he holds in highest esteem, he writes: "I celebrate them because I have no doubt that the world is a better place for their having written, and because I believe it is the responsibility of the critic to incite others to read them.

Amen.

Pub Date: 9/07/97

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