A few things have conspired this week to think about my relationship to literature. One was, the sermon last week was about the discipline of examen, and the pastor recommended journaling; I’m surely not the only parishioner who’s a little more introspective than usual. Another factor is my having recently read and reviewed The Fellowship (about the Inklings), and even the least self-aware person in the world could not read and enjoy that book without thinking to himself, “Why I am I really reading this?”

My previous post had a few preening and self-congratulatory paragraphs about how I’ve managed to cultivate my taste in literature over the past ten years or so. And I allow myself those paragraphs, because the conscious development of my literary taste has been one of the two or three things I really feel I’ve done well as an adult. So I’m going to write a bit more about that.

I have approached literature very much from the outside, largely through pop culture. My story begins with television. I don’t believe I watched an unusual amount of television growing up. Certainly I had no sense that I watched an unusual amount for my peer groups, but it must have been a couple hours every day in high school. I also followed movies very closely (and still do, when I have the opportunity). I became acquainted with Sherlock Holmes, not through A Study in Scarlet, but through Alvin and the Chipmunks and Muppet Babies; the same is true of Treasure Island, Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and countless other works. I have still not read The Three Musketeers, but I recall the 1993 film. I was aware of Count Dracula and Frankenstein though television shows, but I had no idea that Dracula and Frankenstein are respectively pulp fiction and a literary masterpiece (and of course much less idea that Frankenstein is the inventor, not the monster). My entire appreciation of literature was limited to what had filtered through pop culture.

Pop culture still informs my selections, by the way. I’ve just changed the tagline of the blog to a few lines of Tennyson’s Ulysses: “I am a part of all that I have met; // Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ // Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades // For ever and for ever when I move.” Where did I encounter that poem? In the copy of Selections from Tennyson that now sits on my desk? No, from Skyfall! But I credit myself at least with googling the quoted phrase (“We are not now that strength which once shook heaven and earth…”) and enjoying the poem thereafter.

But I was thinking of my teens. I was not illiterate. I can remember reading Roots in middle school or early high school and enjoying it, and also Les Miserables in later high school and being deeply moved by it. (Those titles suggest that I estimated literary merit by the thickness of the book.) Outside of those two books, I do not believe I read much that was worthwhile.

College provided some important footholds. My university education did not have a literary focus, but I had a couple of excellent courses in Shakespeare and Milton, which my grandfather recommended to me. In break times I enjoyed reading books by Dostoevsky and Alan Paton.

The initial impetus for me to read more broadly was surely a desire to have read the important books. That is not a commendable desire in itself—the desire to be “in the know”—but it ended well for me. At some point I read The Lord of the Rings and enjoyed it. Treasure Island was not one of the earlier books I read, but it stands out in memory because it was one of the first classics that was enjoyable in itself: not as a classic that one had to read, but simply as a good-and-not-very-difficult book. Even before that point I had read enough Shakespeare to become accustomed to the language and enjoy Shakespeare, but I think I will remember my surprise delight at Treasure Island as the more significant life event.

Pop culture; a general knowledge of the titles; references to great works by other authors—these provided a long list of books. I have not, by any stretch, read all of the obvious books. I mentioned The Three Musketeers, but there are plenty of obvious books that, to my shame, I have not read: Augustine’s Confessions, War and Peace, The Wealth of Nations, and Don Quixote are all still on the list. Name recognition has heuristic value.

The more significant ‘discovery’ I had made was in what is called ‘reading backwards’. The idea is that instead of reading in a certain genre, you try to find out the influences on your favorite authors. So for instance, if one enjoys The Lord of the Rings, then one might look for further novels in the fantasy genre. That’s one way to go. But to reading backwards means looking for the books that influenced Tolkien, and reading those next. I was slow to appreciate the importance of this. In fact, I certainly traced ideas in linguistics and even theology back through publications before I did the same in literature.

For instance, I appreciated C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy as brilliant imaginative and moral works. But Lewis acknowledges George MacDonald as his master, and indeed, if you read just one of MacDonald’s fantasy novels, you’ll see that Lewis cannot be accused of false modesty. That Hideous Strength is the most delightfully weird book of the Space Trilogy. It turns out to have been influenced by the novels of Charles Williams, who easily exceeds Lewis in his ability to fold magic, philosophy, and theology into novels. And again—to round out the Inklings—Tolkien was influenced by William Morris. So far I have only read The House of the Wolfings from Morris, but in reading even that one book, one can hardly stop from exclaiming over and over, “So this is what Tolkien was going for!”

So. I think I can say with sober judgment that I have succeeded in cultivating in myself an appreciation of quality literature—or at least that I have made a start. And there was no magical formula to achieve this: just the slow influence, over a decade, of opting for quality literature, which eventually became automatic. The original question was: why?

The easiest explanation is that alluded to earlier, a crude desire to have read the important books; to be informed on literary ideas; to understand the allusions people make. I don’t actually think this is true of me. Vanity has always been an easy sin for me to avoid, because I just don’t care about fitting in with a group. Being a linguist is really my least favorite part about linguistics, for instance. Perhaps at some level I derive pleasure from imagining myself an intellectual peer or Dostoevsky, Paton, Tolkien, Hammarskjöld and the rest; but they’re all dead, and, at any rate, I couldn’t even imagine myself getting along with most of them. There are a few author-centered discussion groups that I enjoy and participate in, but discussion has always been a secondary pleasure. I keep things mostly to myself. (Take a moment to appreciate the irony of that statement in this context. Nevertheless, I stand by it.) I will own that when an author refers to a work of literature that I have read, there is a feeling of pleasure; and when I have not read it, a corresponding pain.

I think there is a more fundamental desire to be able to appreciate things. For years, going to a museum was a stressful experience for me, because I was so frustrated by my inability to appreciate what I was seeing. Even now, I can really only manage by indulging my bourgeois eagerness to have seen the famous paintings or artifacts in person, and observing lack of sophistication with irony. Music, albeit to a lesser extent, produces the same frustrations. Literature, for whatever reason, is an easier point of entry. (Perhaps it is a person inclination toward text: I am the person who goes from painting to painting in the museum reading the plaques.) When I read an appreciation of Pope’s poetry—which I have not yet succeeded in enjoying—there is a feeling on my part of loss, of having missed something, of personal failure at not appreciating the work of one who is so widely esteemed.

Judging a work by its popularity is of course ridiculous, and it is also true that tastes vary. Nevertheless, if I read a play written by Shakespeare and am unable to appreciate it, where is the fault more likely to lie? My outlook on these matters, as reflected in this paragraph in particular, assumes that there is objective value to works of art. It’s not terribly important to me to know whether we can have objective knowledge about that. I would certainly reject the conflation of statements such as, “Crime and Punishment is a great novel,” and “Many people enjoy reading Crime and Punishment”. I do not wish to be a slave to my personal inclinations.

So, in the best sense, my desire to appreciate literature is a desire to be more fully human: to appreciate what we have achieved as a species, to celebrate what we have done best. There is a dark side to it: an acquisitiveness. Desire can become greediness. (I mean something beyond the desire to have read rather than the desire to read.) I’ve thought more about this recently, and I am not sure where it will end up.