Why Do We Read Good Books?

Not long ago, one of my older essays was published in these pages to counterbalance, and to caution against, the unqualified praise of Flannery O’Connor’s fictional stories. As I expected, a great many O’Connor enthusiasts took exception to my critique. But amidst the ensuing disparagement, the common confusions, and the rebuttals of arguments never made, there was one tack of reproach which greatly perplexed me—for it was suggested that it is little more than ivy-towered naiveté, or idealism, to reject a work of literature on the grounds that it indulges in a deliberate, continuous, and severely imperfect preoccupation with evil.

Now, whatever might be said to the contrary, the philosophical importance of realism—a subject upon which I have written at some length—was never up for debate. It would be a vain endeavor to search out even a handful of decent books, but particularly fiction, in which some aspects of suffering, pain, death, or evil were not significantly present. In almost any masterwork worthy of the name, the toils of mankind are essential to the turning of a plot.

Yet in treating of such subjects, a truly exceptional author displays a maturity that commands his own powers of imagination. He is able to consider the experiences of life in the ways that are necessary to the moment, at one time sympathetically, at another dispassionately, but always with an eye to the complex coexistence of many emotions and fates. Master artists will not be deceived, nor found repeating the prolonged fascinations of a first-awakened sorrow. And while they are forever aware that sufferings, crimes, and outrages of every kind are aspects of a wide metaphysical drama unfolding in creation, they will know that it is at once unworthy and absurd to consume themselves in atrocities, just as it would be inferior for a painter to paint only in the color of his own blood.

These are, I assure you, no idle or fantastic notions. As many will know, the literary world possesses no shortage of very dark poems and stories in the reading of which we begin by pitying the fictional characters portrayed, and end by pitying the haunted imaginations of the authors themselves.

 

But it is a plain fact that a civilization’s collected literature contains a mirror of its chosen principles; and the study of a society’s thoughts can tell us much about its outward and inward health. If its verses, stories, myths, legends, and romances are filled with ugliness—if they are helplessly imbued with angst, with prurient or pornographic images, or with a juvenile fascination for the dreads and gore of unspeakable crimes—it is certain that the chimes have begun to toll a cold and unforgiving hour. What I mean is that the artistic machinery of a culture can adopt, through various channels of vileness, a penchant for producing broken souls. And it is no small question whether a particular piece of literature will aid or suppress such a trend.

This is the glory and the hazard of all art, but especially of the written word. The furious arguments and descriptions encompassed in books may sometimes carry “an air that kills,” to borrow A. E. Housman’s famous phrase. And this was the substance of my caution concerning the oft-praised works of Flannery O’Connor—not that they attempt to confront the realities of suffering, evil, and redemption, but that they do so artlessly, and with severe flaws that risk achieving a very unfavorable effect. Although many vociferously disagree, I see in too many of these stories the marks of that “sleepless, dismal, incoherent melancholy” which the Scottish author John Buchan aptly described. Nor would I have any people of good will, of any dogma or creed, believe that work such as this is the best and final consummation of the Catholic mind.

It is not necessary to argue—and, indeed, I do not argue—that the moral component is the first and only object of our reading. But it is impossible to hold that literature bears no causal connection, or instills no discernable byproduct, in our manners, in our patterns of speech, and in our hopes, fears, dreams, and faith.

In his valuable study An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis bluntly observed: “Those who seek only vicarious happiness in their reading are unliterary; but those who pretend that it can never be an ingredient in good reading are wrong.” And Lewis was no less clear that the art of tragedy is among the hardest for any author to admirably execute. In far too many cases, we watch jaded moderns expel all wonder and nobility as a sham, and become convinced by the world’s singular fixation with suffering. It is no longer a question of embracing the Savior’s cross, nor of accepting the burdens of others, which are the first necessities for any Christian. It is a matter of wildly, desperately, and sometimes scientifically reversing love itself—of producing “a puddle in the mind which grows always wider, shallower, and more unwholesome.”

But if this much has been said about the dangers of certain inferior books, what do we say of the good? How do we know them? What does it mean to appreciate them? And what makes the world’s great literature worthwhile?

Perhaps it would take a lifetime and beyond to know with certainty. But I do know that I have listened eagerly to the Old English poets; I have attended at times to the stories of Charlemagne, Roland, and El Cid; and I have looked on as Dante circled the spirals of Hell and Purgatory (for I am not worthy of Heaven). I have laughed at Shakespeare’s Falstaff, lamented the sorrow of Lear, and witnessed the foughten fields of Agincourt. I have journeyed with Johnson and Boswell into Scotland; traveled with Pickwick; admired the kindliness of Jarndyce; and grieved when little Jo, the sweeper, died. I have met the honest Trollope, who saw the misery in the way we live now, and even walked with Kipling’s Kim across India. And I have followed the great and indefatigable Morton in the steps of the Master, and of St. Paul.

I can do no better than recommend the bounty of these authors and books, and others such as these, which have afforded great reservoirs of wisdom, strength, patience, and hope to many. These are the works I have come to love, and would have others love for the good that is in them, in preference to the strange popularity of crudeness, modernism and despair.

In a memorable nineteenth-century volume entitled The Crown of Wild Olive, John Ruskin challenged his English countrymen to see that, “what we like determines what we are, and is the sign of what we are.” Ruskin was not a perfect critic, nor certainly a perfect man, but he grasped many truths that lie hidden to contemporary minds—and in this particular suggestion I have found a very solid rule. What is your taste in art? What is your opinion about literature? Do you believe that there is such a thing as the beauty of the angels, or the taste of the devils? And if so, how does that influence what you read, and what you watch, and what you know?

In the depths of time, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas, Teresa of Avila, Francis de Sales, Alphonsus Liguori, and John Henry Newman, among a trifling few, recommended great caution in how we feed our minds and souls. Do you?

If this particular wisdom of the ancients and saints is sound—and I sincerely believe it is—still its application in particular cases is a thing upon which reasonable people can disagree. But the epidemic of bad art, or bad literature, or every horror and incivility of the present age, is a thing that should indeed give us pause, and lead us to examine the guiding principles of our lives.

For in this fragile hour, a man is easily mocked because of his faith, or for the preposterousness of his concern for souls. He might even be pitied for his love of the light and beauty of God, which is ramified throughout the world, and—if we have eyes to see—will yet be known to illumine the harshest, most grievous corners of human experience. But in this I speak with the certitude of truth, that it is useless to chide any man on account of the friendship he bears for all his brethren in Christ, since that is a thing that never dies.

Editor’s note: Above is a detail from “Reading Rabelais” painted by Jehan Georges Vibert (1840-1902).

James P. Bernens

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James P. Bernens graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University in 2008. He also holds a J.D. from the William & Mary School of Law, and is completing an M.A. in philosophy at Boston College.

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