Broad Counsels Regarding Literary Taste

By Arnold Bennett.

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 aesthetic, 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.





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