From: Literary Taste How to Form It
I have now set down what appear to me to be the necessary considerations,
recommendations, exhortations, and dehortations in aid of
this delicate and arduous enterprise of forming the literary taste.
I have dealt with the theory of literature, with the psychology
of the author, and--quite as important--with the psychology of
the reader. I have tried to explain the author to the reader
and the reader to himself. To go into further detail
would be to exceed my original intention, with no hope of ever
bringing the constantly-enlarging scheme to a logical conclusion. My aim
is not to provide a map, but a compass--two very different instruments.
In the way of general advice it remains for me only to put before you
three counsels which apply more broadly than any I have yet offered
to the business of reading.
You have within yourself a touchstone by which finally you can,
and you must, test every book that your brain is capable of comprehending.
Does the book seem to you to be sincere and true? If it does,
then you need not worry about your immediate feelings,
or the possible future consequences of the book. You will ultimately
like the book, and you will be justified in liking it.
Honesty, in literature as in life, is the quality that counts first
and counts last. But beware of your immediate feelings.
Truth is not always pleasant. The first glimpse of truth is, indeed,
usually so disconcerting as to be positively unpleasant,
and our impulse is to tell it to go away, for we will have no truck with it.
If a book arouses your genuine contempt, you may dismiss it from your mind.
Take heed, however, lest you confuse contempt with anger.
If a book really moves you to anger, the chances are
that it is a good book. Most good books have begun by causing anger
which disguised itself as contempt. Demanding honesty from your authors,
you must see that you render it yourself. And to be honest with oneself
is not so simple as it appears. One's sensations and one's sentiments
must be examined with detachment. When you have violently
flung down a book, listen whether you can hear a faint voice
saying within you: "It's true, though!" And if you catch the whisper,
better yield to it as quickly as you can. For sooner or later
the voice will win. Similarly, when you are hugging a book,
keep your ear cocked for the secret warning: "Yes, but it isn't true."
For bad books, by flattering you, by caressing, by appealing to the weak
or the base in you, will often persuade you what fine and splendid books
they are. (Of course, I use the word "true" in a wide
and essential significance. I do not necessarily mean true to literal fact;
I mean true to the plane of experience in which the book moves.
The truthfulness of *Ivanhoe*, for example, cannot be estimated by
the same standards as the truthfulness of Stubbs's *Constitutional History*.)
In reading a book, a sincere questioning of oneself,
"Is it true?" and a loyal abiding by the answer, will help more surely
than any other process of ratiocination to form the taste.
I will not assert that this question and answer are all-sufficient.
A true book is not always great. But a great book is never untrue.
My second counsel is: In your reading you must have in view
some definite aim--some aim other than the wish to derive pleasure.
I conceive that to give pleasure is the highest end
of any work of art, because the pleasure procured from any art is tonic,
and transforms the life into which it enters. But the maximum of pleasure
can only be obtained by regular effort, and regular effort implies
the organisation of that effort. Open-air walking is a glorious exercise;
it is the walking itself which is glorious. Nevertheless, when setting out
for walking exercise, the sane man generally has a subsidiary aim
in view. He says to himself either that he will reach a given point,
or that he will progress at a given speed for a given distance,
or that he will remain on his feet for a given time.
He organises his effort, partly in order that he may combine
some other advantage with the advantage of walking, but principally
in order to be sure that the effort shall be an adequate effort.
The same with reading. Your paramount aim in poring over literature
is to enjoy, but you will not fully achieve that aim unless
you have also a subsidiary aim which necessitates the measurement
of your energy. Your subsidiary aim may be ęsthetic, moral,
political, religious, scientific, erudite; you may devote yourself
to a man, a topic, an epoch, a nation, a branch of literature,
an idea--you have the widest latitude in the choice of an objective;
but a definite objective you must have. In my earlier remarks
as to method in reading, I advocated, without insisting on,
regular hours for study. But I both advocate and insist on
the fixing of a date for the accomplishment of an allotted task.
As an instance, it is not enough to say: "I will inform myself completely
as to the Lake School." It is necessary to say: "I will inform myself
completely as to the Lake School before I am a year older."
Without this precautionary steeling of the resolution
the risk of a humiliating collapse into futility is enormously magnified.
My third counsel is: Buy a library. It is obvious that you cannot read
unless you have books. I began by urging the constant purchase of books--
any books of approved quality, without reference to their
immediate bearing upon your particular case. The moment has now come
to inform you plainly that a bookman is, amongst other things,
a man who possesses many books. A man who does not possess
many books is not a bookman. For years literary authorities have been
favouring the literary public with wondrously selected
lists of "the best books"--the best novels, the best histories,
the best poems, the best works of philosophy--or the hundred best
or the fifty best of all sorts. The fatal disadvantage of such lists
is that they leave out large quantities of literature which is
admittedly first-class. The bookman cannot content himself
with a selected library. He wants, as a minimum, a library
reasonably complete in all departments. With such a basis acquired,
he can afterwards wander into those special byways of book-buying
which happen to suit his special predilections. Every Englishman
who is interested in any branch of his native literature,
and who respects himself, ought to own a comprehensive and inclusive
library of English literature, in comely and adequate editions.
You may suppose that this counsel is a counsel of perfection.
It is not. Mark Pattison laid down a rule that he who desired
the name of book-lover must spend five per cent. of his income on books.
The proposal does not seem extravagant, but even on a smaller percentage
than five the average reader of these pages may become the owner,
in a comparatively short space of time, of a reasonably complete
English library, by which I mean a library containing
the complete works of the supreme geniuses, representative important works
of all the first-class men in all departments, and specimen works
of all the men of the second rank whose reputation is really
a living reputation to-day. The scheme for a library,
which I now present, begins before Chaucer and ends with George Gissing,
and I am fairly sure that the majority of people will be startled
at the total inexpensiveness of it. So far as I am aware,
no such scheme has ever been printed before.
Next: AN ENGLISH LIBRARY PERIOD I