A Well-stocked Head and a Better Stocked Library

Reading writers like Mathias Enard and Tomasi di Lampedusa is not only greatly entertaining but also cajoles me to read only the best books. Both writers wear their massive erudition lightly. Gilbert Highet, the Scottish-American classicist used the terrific phrase (to which I aspire, true to autodidactic form): “a well-stocked head and a better stocked library”.

I started this year with the intent of reading widely, dipping into the ocean of contemporary literature. For every Mathias Enard, I abandoned another dozen frightful books, none of which wasted my time but served to further teach me what to avoid. My literary taste remains omnivorous but I shall default to the late D. G. Myers advice: “Read no book before it is ten years old (in order not to be influenced by the buzz”. I shall of course occasionally, whimsically ignore that advice in the hope of discovering more writers like Mathias Enard and Rachel Cusk. Very, very occasionally the hyperbole is justified.

The best books are inexhaustible and capable of transforming, for a time, how we perceive the world. My reading life is ruled by serendipity, one book leading to another. Enard, for instance, prompts me to reread Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Edward Said and Claudio Magris, also to explore the work of Isabelle Eberhardt, Ernst Bloch, Georg Trakl, Sadegh Hedayat, Faris al-Shidyaq and Leopold Weiss.

For the time being though I’m taking a detour, one I take regularly, back to older books, to the hymns of Homer via Peter McDonald, and to a recent edition of Gilbert Highet’s The Classical Tradition: Greek & Roman Influences on Western Literature. This might then be a gateway to Werner Jaeger’s Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, translated also by Gilbert Highet.

16 thoughts on “A Well-stocked Head and a Better Stocked Library

  1. I find that the more I am writing—reviews and essays—I read at times for language, structure and form. I do read for personal discovery, but that tends to loop back into writing projects. I read more obscure and experimental works, and of course, I read a lot of work in translation. With respect to the latter, the ten year rule can be misleading. Many new releases in translation are easily works that are more than ten years old—writers lauded in their own countries sometimes fail to appear in English in their lifetimes. One thing I love about reading now, at my age, is I no longer feel I have to read something that is not working for me, no matter how highly praised, or to feel guilty about what I do choose to pick up.

    Hooray for idiosyncratic reading and readers. It is, for me, endlessly fascinating to follow the journeys of others as I carve my own.

    • “With respect to the latter, the ten year rule can be misleading. Many new releases in translation are easily works that are more than ten years old—writers lauded in their own countries sometimes fail to appear in English in their lifetimes.”

      In applying the 10-year rule I invariably use the original publication date.

    • “Hooray for idiosyncratic reading and readers. It is, for me, endlessly fascinating to follow the journeys of others as I carve my own.”

      It makes for fascinating reading: this community of solitary readers, writing of their journeys, occasionally intersecting.

  2. Myers advice has got me thinking about my reading habits. I’m finding that the contemporary novels I’ve been reading in the past few years have not really stayed with me to the extent the older ones do.

  3. Serious and challenging novels, Broch’s The Death of Virgil comes to mind, exhilarate, enlighten, and expand your reading life. I regularly turn to Highet’s The Classical Tradition and recently discovered Magris’ Danube which I am currently rereading. With Enard on my tbr pile I appreciate your encouragement to read “the best books”.

    • I’ve had Death of Virgil awaiting me for ages. I’ll be reading a new translation of Aeneid soon, so might turn to Brochure afterwards.
      Thanks.

  4. I agree with you (and Myers) in principle, and that’s certainly the way I used to work in the past, when I was just a reader. Now that I am writing and hoping to publish something myself some day, I feel obliged to read more recent releases, so that I can get a feel for the current market. Even though at times it depresses me. But then, as you point out, there are the occasional gems…

    • I suppose there is some need to be aware of innovations in form etc., but quite honestly there is nothing being done in literature that wasn’t invented by the Greeks 2000- odd years ago. What those gems, like Enard, do is create a novel that, current references aside, could almost have been produced at any time, certainly in the last 100 years.

      • Yes, and I think those are the novels that will be read in hundreds of years’ time. Sadly, too few of them are being published – it’s more a case of fads and fashions, I have the feeling.

  5. Wonderful quote.

    The ten year rule isn’t bad, but I also find that translations are often worth looking at even if more recent simply because the mere fact of translation means someone cared enough about the book to take that effort for it. It’s no small task or tribute after all, translating a book.

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