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497. Influence (XIII)



You would be surprised how many people say they have read a particular book yet have not, in fact, read the book. For a long time, I was naïve enough to think that when people say they have read a book they have read it; however, there has always been a particular book type—not a book type I have read—that claims to let you pretend to have read various books. It is usually called something like Clueless Classics: the Classics in Sixty Seconds. There have been many such novelty books down the years, and the books recur because the joke is a joke because it is what people actually do; so why not print it in actuality? Why not provide a gloss for everything from Pride and Prejudice to Proust? Okay, you checked Wikipedia anyway…


You might think this is constrained to a fairly select intellectual middle-class world, although even a completely unintellectual woman I met who manicured people’s feet made a big fuss and tried to impress on me that she had read Proust (I have not read Proust—neither had she, yet she knew that middle-class “sophisticated” people in her generation were meant to have done so). If you flick back to articles from the 1950s, you see this was once much more so; it was generally expected that professional people would at least recognise the names Proust and Joyce—your doctor would pretend to have glanced at them, anyway.


So people are snobs. Yes, fine—very human. Where it becomes more sinister is when you read people who put forward arguments that springboard from particular books—or from other thinkers—and realise they have not read those books or thinkers; and, if you have read those thinkers, then this is very obvious. People lie here too. Sometimes it is obvious they have read a gloss or a summary—other times, they have just taken against “the idea of someone” and then dismissed them out of hand.


Genuine engagement with a text—with a thinker—can actually be quite rare. Oddly, this is not to do with instinct or intuition—an innate revulsion against a book or idea. Rather, it is to do with the rational idea that a person has formed as regards a book or thinker—an idea that is punctured by actual engagement.


Perhaps this is the crux: actual engagement. There is an essay called “The Man of One Book”, from St. Aquinas’s phrase: “Beware the man of one book.” The idea is that the man who knows one book really well is more powerful than a man who has supposedly read many books—the Muslims do this particularly well, practically the only book they think they need is the Koran; and they set out to know it by heart. This is much better than the pretence you have read Proust—or the so-called “Great Books”.


A book is a living animal—an organism. When you spend time with a book you spend time with the author; if the text is dead it is because the author is lifeless. Hence Ezra Pound observed that a book should be like a ball of light in your hands—you mesh with the author, build a mutual fire. Ideally, the written word should be transcribed speech: speech is superior to the written word, as Socrates observed—real philosophy is dynamic. A book that is alive is a dynamic entity—just like an animal, it moves and has needs. I maintain that there are certain books that will not let you read them, or only let you read them at a certain time. You may be driven back at the first attempt, but you have to be patient—a book cannot always be stormed; it might have to be coaxed. The recognition that books are alive is the opposite to the view that books are “a store” to acquire, talk about, and reference—books are rivers and animals, not quarries to be mined.

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