In a library we are surrounded by many hundreds of dear friends, but they are imprisoned by an enchanter in these paper and leathern boxes; and though they know us, and have been waiting for two, ten, or twenty centuries for us – some of them – and are eager to give us a sign, and unbosom themselves, it is the law of their limbo that they must not speak until spoken to; and as the enchanter has dressed them, like battalions of infantry, in coat and jacket of one cut, by the thousand and ten thousand, your chance of hitting on the right one is to be computed by the arithmetical rule of Permutation and Combination – and not a choice out of three caskets, but out of half a million caskets all alike. But it happens in our experience, that in this lottery there are at least fifty or a hundred blanks to a prize.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Books’ (1860).
And this leads me to say how woefully mistaken are those who believe that certain books, because universally acknowledged as ‘masterpieces’, are the books which alone have power to inspire and nourish us. Every lover of books can name dozens of titles which, because they unlock his soul, because they open his eyes to reality, are for him the golden books. It matters not what evaluation is made of these by scholars and critics, by pundits and authorities: for the man who is touched to the quick by them, they are supreme.
Henry Miller, ‘Letter to Pierre Lesdain’ (1969).
I really like how Miller puts it. How often do we find that our choices for the books we pick up to read are determined by external forces rather than according to our internal leanings and yearnings? While it is good and helpful sometimes to be guided by critics and reviews, I think it is even more important that one reads according to one’s own set of benchmarks. Books, like food, are subjective to taste. The saying about one man’s meat being another man’s poison would be quite apt if we were to apply it to books too, I think.
But above all :
The main point, therefore, about reading is to read. The first thing to do is to make absolutely sure that you really do like reading. The thing is supposed to be, and often is, a pleasure: there is no possible reason why it should be elevated into a duty. You should begin by reading ill-written books and those which your more literate friends decry. Well-written books often require some effort on the part of the reader, and if you are only just begining, this effort is a sheer waste of time. The test of whether you honestly enjoy reading is a simple one. If you leave your home and take your own book with you, it means that you are one of those who read sincerely. If, on the other hand, when you leave your home you rely either on the railway bookstall or on the books which you may, or may not, find there when you arrive, it means that you do not care for reading. If you belong to the latter class, all that I advise is never in any circumstances to discuss literature.
Harold Nicolson, ‘How to read books’ (1937).
Now, I wonder what Mr Nicolson might have to say about this. 😉
Almost any book does for a bed-book,’ a woman once said to me. I nearly replied in a hurry that almost any woman would do for a wife; but that is not the way to bring people to conviction of sin.
H.M. Tomlinson, ‘Bed-books and night-lights’ (1918).