Published May 4, 2014
Q: Bit late to this, but excellent post. I’m one of those guys who has tried to read older literature but I’m unable to really appreciate it for the reasons you listed. Do you have any advice for me in regards to how I could get to where you are? Where I should start? It’s daunting, but I’d really like to be well read some day.
First of all, you have to read for yourself and your own interests. The only thing “great books” have in common is that they’re all great, but in terms of the worldviews and ideas they articulate, they’re incredibly diverse, reading according to a list of books other people tell you are good is a bad way to go about it, you need to develop taste and figure out what you believe is good. Taste is more than subjective though, it’s a sense for the beautiful, and you have to actively develop that sense.
No one told me what to read, I didn’t learn about any of this stuff through college or graduate school. The type of literature I talk the most about, the German literature of the 1770s-1810s, isn’t really even really taught at American colleges, it’s very poorly understood in the English speaking world and I’ve had to research it and figure it all out largely for myself.
I read and loved Goethe’s mature novels, the “Wilhelm Meister” novels and “Elective Affinities”, and one day in a used book store I found a copy of “Goethe and the Novel” by Eric Blackall and I read that, and that book extensively reconstructed Goethe’s novel reading habits throughout his life, what works were his favorites, what he had said about different novels etc. And I wanted to understand his books better so I started reading some of the Augustan English novels he seemed to talk about the most, like Goldsmith’s “The Vicar of Wakefield”.
Human knowledge is unbelievably self-reflexive, you have to develop the ability to be critical about your own knowledge if you want to develop it. You have to objectify what you know and turn it into a picture in your imagination, and when you’re able to do that you can judge that picture as if it were a painting you were in the process of creating, and figure out what you need to do still to fill in all the remaining gaps. Then when you’ve figured out that if you want to know more about, say Augustan era British literature, you can develop a reading list for yourself to teach yourself what you think you need to know.
Off the top of your head can you tell me who Horace is for example? What works he wrote and what time period he lived in? I kept seeing his name come up in works like Tom Jones but I didn’t really have much idea who he was. Turns out the “Augustan” era is called the “Augustan” era because of the influence of Golden Age Latin writers from the time of Augustus, Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Livy etc. And so I decided I should familiarize myself with those writers, and then I found out that Dryden had done very influential translations of Virgil and so I read his Aeneid.
You really have to put in a concerted effort over the course of years, and you have to let your own interests develop themselves. It is daunting, and it only becomes more daunting as time goes on. I’ve come to feel stupider and stupider the more I’ve read because I’ve realized just how much I actually don’t know.
Don’t expect instant results, proceed slowly, take it one book at a time. The more you read the more it all begins to fit together in your head. Part of it is just being humble about your own knowledge and your abilities and not trying to run before you can walk. I had initially ignored Kantian philosophy and at first I didn’t really think it was important to understanding Goethe’s literary works, but then I read Boyle’s “Goethe: The Poet and the Age” (Volume two specifically) and realized that I needed to take it more seriously. I was humble about it though, I knew the CPR would be way over my head and that I needed to start smaller and work my way up. So I read some secondary scholarship like Beiser’s “The Fate of Reason”, and Manfred Kuehn’s biography of Kant. From there I sat down with a much more manageable work, “The Prolegomena To Any Future Metaphysics”, and I sat down with a legal pad and I went through section by section writing the argument of each one out on paper in my own words. The key was I was humble, I broke down what I wanted to learn into smaller bites and I followed through with a course of study I created for myself.
For me there was a very noticeable, profound change in my entire way of thinking after about three or so years of reading, I just hit this sort of critical mass of knowledge where I suddenly exploded into intellectual self-awareness in a way that humiliated me, where it just hit me that what had passed for intelligent thought and reading comprehension when I was in college was only a shadow of the real thing.
I can’t really tell you what you should read, it depends. I’d say pace yourself, begin with shorter and simpler works. The Ancient Greek Romances like “Daphnis and Chloe” or the “Aethiopian Romance” are great. I don’t really know specifically what you’re interested in or what you hope to learn about, do you want to study Kantian-era German literature like Goethe and Schiller? Elizabethan poetry like Shakespeare and Ben Jonson? French Neo-Classicism like Racine and Corneille? Renaissance Italian literature like Dante and Petrarch and Boccaccio? Augustan era literature like Pope and Johnson?
I will say you should teach yourself to read another language based on what period and nation you’re most interested in, and that you should read a lot of secondary-scholarship and history and biography. But beyond that, the world is sort of your oyster so to speak.