What Should an Old Man Read?

by Nils Peterson at 3 Quarks Daily: I have finally come to understand that I cannot read everything. There aren’t enough years left. So, what should I read?

The question is complicated by the fact that I have a taste for not very good literature. I like John Buchan despite his racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and his foolish sense of the supremacy of the English gentleman.

39 Steps, based on his novel, was the first Hitchcock movie I ever saw. In the mid-40’s, I was invited to be for a few days the companion of a boy, a grandson of the old New York aristocracy. He lived with his mother in a great apartment a couple of stories high (the apartment, not the building) near Gramercy Park. One afternoon, his twin sister went with her friend to the ballet. I was envious, but his mother took us to an arty NY movie theater to see what seemed to be thought of as boy’s fare. I was entranced by the film, and, when I got back to my own home, went immediately to the library and got the novel. I’ve read it since at least a half dozen times. It’s quite different from the movie. A great movie. (Not a great, though engaging, book.) I liked somewhat, no, quite a bit, less (most are really dreadful), E. Phillips Oppenheim (though The Great Impersonation is fun) and am glad one can find things like that on the internet.

I’ve liked H. Rider Haggard whose novel She was Carl Jung’s favorite because it portrayed so well his sense of the anima, the female energy he thought we all had a version of. I have managed to save through the years a Classic Comic version. There is also an excellent Jungian analysis of it, Anima as Fate, by the Jungian analyst Cornelia Brunner. She gives a chapter-by-chapter plot summary as she goes through the book if you haven’t the heart for the text. (I bet you’d find it interesting.) And I liked Rafael Sabatini, particularly Scaramouche with its opening sentence, “He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.” When I read that as a boy, I thought there could be no finer writing nor richer sense of the nature of the world.

You must understand that the above is not necessarily a list I am proud of, but I cannot, should not, disown it. I change my mind. I’m proud of it.

For many years I was an avid science fiction fan and even wrote and published some. But I don’t read much of it anymore. The sentences are often too clumsy no matter how rich the idea. So, I need writing with some grace to read with pleasure.

Now for fictional pleasure, I occasionally read mystery novels, English or Irish small-town ones in particular, often with some impatience, occasionally with delight. Many have good sentences. And, of course, all the good murders have now moved to Scandinavia, but there they are much more brutal, slashing instead of the neatness of a symptomless poison and a body in a locked library. (I do not much like Poirot.) But I’m 90. I have just a few years of reading left. Is this a good way to spend them? So, should I give up this kind of reading and concentrate on the great books?

My friend Norm Minnick complicated things for me by making all the choices for his hundred best novels list – Don Quixote. I’ve taught that novel and understand the case that can be made for Norm’s judgment. It is indeed a marvel that would repay reading again and again. Other possibilities: I had by my bedside Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past which I vowed at one time to read once more after I retired. I’ve been retired for many years now and still have not made it through. In truth, I’ve put it back on the shelf. I have among my books one of those 2 volume collections of the great literature of the Western World put out by Norton (which company seems to have planted its foot like Columbus on the land of literature to claim it for itself.) I have thought the responsible thing to do would be to read five pages a day. It would take more than a year to get through (I trust I have that much time), but I could declare myself a serious reader.

More here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.