Our Books Ourselves




Our Books Ourselves


A photograph of my book crammed library

My Library

J. D. Wilson, Jr.


There was an article in The New Republic, “Voluminous” by Leon Wieseltier that talks about how the books we read shape the people we become, about how some books will shape our biography. They do not just entertain us or move us, but become us, shape our memories and who we become, or as Wieseltier says “Many books are read but some books are lived, so that words and ideas lose their ethereality and become experiences, turning points in an insufficiently clarified existence and thereby acquire the almost mystical (but also fallible) intimacy of memory. In this sense one’s books are one’s biography.” A library is more than a collection of books, it contains those books with which we have established an intimacy; we have conversed with them, written in them and they have written upon us.

The photograph above is of my library and it suggests a lot about who I am. It is very diverse everything from Proust to Dr. Seuss; from the earliest myths and folk tales to The Changing Light at Sandover. It is very disordered and serendipitous, with stacks in front of books put away in the more conventional fashion, standing up with their backs to us; with many that were purchased on a whim or because they addressed a topic that at the time fascinated, and probably still fascinates, me. They are hugely overstocked suggesting an appetite that it is impossible to satisfy in that few, and certainly not me, are capable of consuming so much. It suggests my curiosity on subjects ranging from the American West, to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, to astronomy, psychology, and “great” thinkers past and present. But mostly there are stories from Scheherazade to Chekhov, from the mighty walls of Priam to Toad Hall and the Misty Mountains. The song that started things is called Teatime by a group I discovered in 1973 while walking through the streets of Edinburgh and one of the universities there (St. Andrews I think). The song is there because tea is an important adjunct to reading. C. S. Lewis once said something about there not being a book long enough or a cup of tea large enough. He said it much more eloquently of course, but I endorse the sentiment.


Photograph of my cluttered desk

My Desk

J. D. Wilson, Jr.


The desk I work at in my library is uncluttered and more organized, though still surrounded by books that have significance for me, Shakespeare’s First Folio (a facsimile, not the original), Aubrey Beardsley’s edition of Le Mort d’Arthur, probably one of my favorite books and one of the books that drove me, in the sixth grade, towards serious literature. I could not read Malory’s and Caxton’s English, though I tried, but I had read one of the stories in my sixth grade reader at school, a modern adaptation, and so I wanted the “big book” the adaptation came from. I struggled with the opening chapters, but unlike some eleven year olds, the book was clearly beyond me. That said, though, any edition that does not open with the words “It came to pass in the days of Uther Pendragon, when he was king of all England, and so reigned, that there was a mighty duke in Cornwall that waged war against him a long time” is no edition for me. There is a sense that a library is a self-portrait of its owner and reveals a great deal about the person who possesses it, and is probably a good reason not to show one’s library to just anyone.


Illustration depicting a very large library for Borges' short story "The Library of Babel

Érik Desmazières: La Salle des planètes, from his series of illustrations for Jorge Luis Borges’s story ‘The Library of Babel,’ 1997–2001. A new volume of Desmazières’s catalogue raisonné will be published by the Fitch-Febvrel Gallery later this year. Illustration © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.



Of course the quintessential library is Jorge Luis Borges’ “Library of Babel.” If the library we have speaks to who we are what do the libraries we imagine say about us. The Library of Babel is essentially unusable in its size and complexity though more complete than any could hope for. But part of what makes a real library a real library is selection, a library that includes everything cannot say much about the collector of the library because the only criteria is that it be in print. Theoretically the Library of Congress is something of an accumulation of everything published in America. It represents the depth and breadth of writing in America but being a collection of everything it does not pass judgment, it does not by exclusion and inclusion suggest what is worth reading and what is not. The case could be made that a public library also does not pass judgment on books, that they merely collect, but their collections often represent the interests of the communities they serve, while also including titles that suggest where the librarian thinks the community should be. Where a personal library may be a self-portrait of the person to whom it belongs a public library in many ways is a self-portrait of the community to whom it belongs.


Pen and ink drawing of teenage boy with long hair

Self-Portrait at the age of thirteen

Albrecht Durer



The drawing above and the painting below are self-portraits of Albrecht Durer, one at thirteen and one at twenty-nine. What do these portraits tell us about the artist and how the artist changed over those sixteen years? The first is much simpler and the subject much younger. The painting shows the unique signature that Durer developed, his initials actually, the letter “D” embedded in the letter “A”. Though both are detailed the later painting captures details that are more complex and intricate. The most obvious difference is probably that of color, which is perhaps the primary difference between a drawing and a painting. I have been told that hands are often the most difficult for an artist to do well. The hands in both the painting and the drawing are very well drawn and suggest the thirteen year old Durer was already a master craftsman. For me the significant difference is in what the artist attempts, the painting revealing an artist who has grown in skill and maturity.


Painitng of a bearded man with long hair in a fur lined robe

Self-Portrait in a Fur-Collared Robe

Albrecht Durer



Where paintings are snapshots of sorts, they capture a moment in time and the way things were at that moment, a library is more of a living self-portrait, it evolves and grows as its “curator” evolves and grows, and though the painting suggests growth and an evolution of style over the drawing, the painting does not contain the drawing in the same way a library contains some of its earlier manifestations. Also, with the passage of time some things are discarded and others are added. The library reveals the librarian then in two ways. What is discarded suggests those things that are left behind or outgrown; they reveal a change in intellectual, spiritual, and cultural directions. My first library included many Batman and Superman comics that are now no more. My brother picked up for a dime or a quarter a copy of the first Superman comic. He found it in a junk shop when we were children in San Pedro, California. That comic book and many others from about the same period were purchased by my brother and I from an old thrift shop three or four blocks up the street from the old ferry building and the ferry that would take my brother and I to the shipyard on Terminal Island where our father worked. There was a table toward the front of the store where the comics were scattered in no particular order. There were many of them and we would rummage for the oldest Batman and Superman comics we could find. We had never read them so they were like new to us, and a little cheaper than the brand new ones we could purchase at the drug store.

When he threw that book away he threw away what would come to be worth over a million dollars (the copy of the same edition having sold for that much in a recent auction). What does this suggest about the value of books and what we choose to keep and what we choose to discard. Is my library better served by this Superman comic or by the old Skeat edition of the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, with the navy blue bindings that identify it as one of the Standard Oxford Authors (they are roughly the same age, coming as they both do from the 1930’s)? I suppose how that question is answered says something as well about the keeper of the library and how he has grown as a person and a collector of literature.


Illustration of a Martian war machine attacking a British war ship

Drawing for the novel The War of the Worlds, showing a Martian fighting-machine battling with the warship Thunder Child

Henrique Alvim Corrêa



There were a number of other articles about books and the kinds of stories people have been attracted to over the millennia. There was an article in the London Review of Books, “Homer Inc”, on The Iliad and why, despite what Matt Damon said in Goodwill Hunting, it has from the beginning always been more popular than The Odyssey, which on the surface seems to tell the better story. There was a review of a book on the illustrations done for The Thousand and One Arabian Nights, “Visions of the Arabian Nights”, and how they have changed over time. There was a third article on monsters and what makes them attractive to readers, “Monsters, magic and miracles”. Each of these articles touches on different aspects of what makes a story attractive and draws readers to it. There are monsters in the Arabian Nights, but there are no monsters in The Iliad though The Odyssey is populated with a healthy number of monsters. It might be said that it is the humans in The Iliad that are somewhat monstrous in their behavior. Perhaps that is what combat does to people or maybe it is just a snapshot of a more primitive people who do view human life in quite the same way we do. There is also, generally, something epic in the battle with monsters, whether it is the Martians in The War of the Worlds or dragons in Beowulf and other stories from medieval Europe.


IvanBilibinRussianDragon.jpgIllustration of a knight fighting a multi-headed dragon

Zmey Gorynych, the Russian three-headed dragon

Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin



Monsters engage us perhaps because they are so different from us on one level, but on others not so different. We empathize at least as much with the monster in Frankenstein as we do with Frankenstein himself because we understand the monster’s loneliness and desire for companionship. I enjoy the scene in ET where ET and Eliot first see each other and each is terrified by the “monstrous” appearance of the other. ET needs help and Eliot empathizes with ET’s need, in this we see that they both share a common humanity in spite of their terrifying differences and their shared humanity enables each to befriend the other. This suggests that what makes a monster is relative. Polyphemus was not a monster in the eyes of the other Cyclopes with whom he lived. In my library there are many monsters and many monstrous acts depicted. There are monsters, like Frankenstein’s creature and Quasimodo that draw my empathy and others like Grendel and Wells’ extraterrestrial beings that evoke fear and terror. There are also many ghosts who evoke a different kind of terror. There is something in me that enjoys being horrified and seeks out terror in all its grisly forms.

My Immigration Story

Tan Le

TED Talk


The video tells another story of survival and acceptance. It is not a book; it is a video clip of the person telling their story. Oral histories have become more a part of our culture’s historical legacy. Of course there is nothing new in this. In The Last of the Mohicans we are introduced to Hawk-eye and Chingachgook as they discuss, among other things, the relative value of written versus oral history. Neither Hawk-eye nor Chingachgook trust written history, seeing them as shaped more by the interests of the historian than by giving an accurate account of what has occurred. I imagine the veracity of those telling the story, whether written down or spoken, has a lot to do with reliability of the narrative each presents. But how do we classify these stories, whether made up or stating facts? What do we do with films, recordings, photographs, all that other media that tell stories without writing anything down? Many libraries are film libraries or record (CD) libraries. What do these libraries reveal and should an honest “librarian” draw from all forms of story telling? I suppose this is a matter of taste, but Tan Le’s story has some of the qualities of Odysseus’s journey home. There are the predators, the overcoming of the odds, there are elements of fate and destiny. Stories, even true stories, are told after the fact, that is they are selective, events are included others are rejected, based on their relevance to the story being told. This suggests there is purpose to the story, that, even when the story is a true story, a memoir, that there is a kind of order to the events, the suggestion, perhaps, that the outcome was destined.

In the earliest of stories this was true, the Norns or the Fates cut the thread that wove the tapestry of a life when that life reached its end. No matter what the characters involved do, Oedipus will murder his father and will marry his mother. It will all happen inadvertently and no one is to blame for the way things go, but people are accountable nonetheless and all is foreordained. Today it is chance and serendipity that lead to these outcomes. Life is chaotic; there is no order or purpose. When I look at my library it has haphazardly come together the way it has, but there is also a guiding hand, my interests, my values, my tastes in literature; these are the “fates’ that guide my library’s destiny and shape the person my library has made. Perhaps these are the the fates that shape all our destinies. That said, when I look at my library I see the books I have read and collected and they have formed in many ways the person I have become, one can read in them all my strengths and failings, my inadequacies and redeeming qualities. It is where they first took breath.


Portrait of a bearded man in (mostly) shades of blue with hair and beard in shades of red


Vincent Van Gogh


Living with Attitude

So What
Miles Davis

Living with Attitude

Illustration of Gulliver’s Travels.
Richard Redgrave

I enjoy this piece of music in part because of its attitude. The name of the song is “So What” and you can hear the piano come in saying “So What” followed by the trumpet joining in that sentiment and echoing the piano’s “So What.” Sometimes we take ourselves to seriously and respond to those around us with, if not a verbal an attitudinal “So What.” As a teacher there is rarely a day that goes by when at least one student does not express this sentiment. The picture above is of Gulliver, from Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels meeting a Brobdingnagian. Gulliver is of average height, about six feet, but he is traveling through a land where the people are 72 feet tall. Gulliver appears to be at his ease, making a friendly gesture to the surprised giant. As this part of the story progresses Gulliver will become more belligerent and respond to some of the inhabitants with the same insolent indifference expressed by the piano and trumpet in the song.

How important is attitude in our daily lives? Does attitude reveal the feelings that we harbor or is it a mask that conceals emotions we do not want those around us to know we are feeling, that is, does attitude reveal or conceal? If I were Gulliver in the picture above my attitude of “pleased to meet you” would be concealing my terror, while the attitude of the Brobdingnagian is probably genuine, revealing his actual feelings. It is probably safe to say that attitude reveals or conceals based on the situations in which we find ourselves.

Portrait of Dr. Gachet
Vincent van Gogh

Dr. Gachet was, in addition to being a doctor, an amateur painter who treated Van Gogh’s final illness. Van Gogh was not formally a patient of Dr. Gachet, they were friends and it just happened that one of the friends was sick and one of the friends was a doctor. Van Gogh said of the painting that he was trying to capture the Doctor’s melancholy. I am not sure if this melancholy lived more in the doctor or in the painter but the attitude of sadness can be seen in the painting. The flower the doctor holds is a foxglove, a plant that had medicinal value and may suggest the doctor’s melancholy is directed toward his profession. I think it is often the attitude of the subject captured by the artist that makes a painting interesting. Most photographic and, in Van Gogh’s day, many painted portraits do not reveal much in the way of attitude, or if they do, the attitude is posed to capture that which the subject wishes to project to the world and not necessarily the subjects true attitude toward the world.

Desiderius Erasmus
Hans Holbein the Younger

This is a more formal painting of the Dutch Humanist Erasmus. But, like the Van Gogh portrait of Dr. Gachet, this portrait of Erasmus conveys an attitude and not a pose. The facial expression suggests an attitude of resignation, perhaps towards what he finds in the world. His most famous book is a satire called In Praise of Folly. The title is a Greek pun. The actual title of the book is Moriae Encomium. “Encomium” just refers to a literary work whose purpose is to praise and “moriae” in Greek means fool. However, “More” was also Erasmus’s best friend’s last name, his friend was Sir Thomas More. “Moriae” could also be Thomas More’s last name rendered into Greek. So the title could mean “In Praise of More” or “In Praise of Foolishness or Folly.” The contents of the book, though, suggest the latter. The book mocks the foolishness Erasmus found in the world and the look of resignation may reflect the need to tolerate what one cannot change.

There are also the books that he has surrounded himself with. They were an important part of his life. He once said that when he had money he bought books and if there was any left over he bought food and clothes. This reveals an attitude towards books and learning that some think is being lost today. I am not so sure. But I read over the last few weeks of the closing of some famous bookstores. A blog I visit, The Elegant Variation, lamented the closing of the LIbrairie de France. The blog’s author, Mark Sarvas, grew up with this bookstore and it was an important landmark in his growing up. My brother told me recently of the 100th anniversary of the bookstore I grew up with in San Pedro, Williams Books, and even though I no longer live in San Pedro I know the sadness I would feel if that bookstore were to close.

I also read a few weeks ago of the closing of a bookstore in London’s Charing Cross Road bookstore district. The article included a map of Charing Cross Road that showed the locations of the bookstores than and now. The bookstore that closed was devoted to mystery novels and was called “Murder One.” I enjoy mysteries and am saddened I will not be able to visit this shop. I remember visiting this section of London in the 1970’s and I visited many of the bookstores on the map, many of which are no longer in operation. I am especially fond of second hand bookstores because I enjoy handling books that have been read before in which previous readers have made notes in the margins about what moved them or made them think.

There is an attitude towards books and learning that we carry with us throughout our lives. Some think books and learning are being valued less, but perhaps it is just the kind of books and the kind of learning that is valued today is a bit different from what was valued when I was growing up. It may also be that those that make this assertion have an agenda that is served by people thinking attitudes are changing. I do not think books and scholarship have ever really held a place of true esteem in our culture and preserving them has always been a bit of a battle.

But to get back to attitudes and the paintings, Mark Twain once said “Good breeding consists in concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of other persons.” I think a good painting, on the other hand, is one that captures what the subject thinks of himself and those around him. The paintings of both Dr. Gachet and Erasmus suggest that though they view the world in a certain light that is not entirely positive they maintain a sense of equanimity towards the world. Erasmus seems amused by what he sees while there is a gentleness and sensitivity to the doctor’s expression that softens his melancholy a bit.

From Captains Courageous

This film clip reveals a number of different attitudes some of them positive and some of them negative. Lionel Barrymore as the ship’s captain Disko Troop reveals an attitude towards the captain of an approaching ship that seems on the surface somewhat hostile. And that other captain’s attitude seems to reflect a similar hostility. But those that know both men realize that these attitudes are something of an act that proceeds from the competitive spirit of each and from the friendship that each feels for the other. On shore they are good friends while at sea they are competitors. There is a genuine desire on the part of both these men to outdo the other, but there is also a genuine affection that they share for each other. Both these attitudes live side by side in these men and both are true.

Freddy Bartholomew plays a boy named Harvey Cheyne. He on the other hand is insufferable. He is rich kid who thinks the world of himself and much, much less of everyone else. In part this is because of the treatment he has received from his father. His father genuinely cares for the boy, but he is a man of business and his business keeps him away from home and largely uninvolved in the son’s life. The boy has become a bully and has been able to get away with being a bully in part because his father is not involved enough in the boy’s life to curb this behavior.

The character played by Spencer Tracy, Manuel Fidello, is a fisherman on the boat who takes the boy in and tries to be something of a father figure. Manuel is a man who was loved by his father and who is in turn kind to most of the people he encounters. He is proud of what he does and of who he is and has little patience for those like the boy, that think too highly of themselves and too little of others. His pride comes from what he is able to accomplish. His kindness from the kindness he received growing up. His attitude towards the boy’s behavior is not positive, he does not like the boy’s arrogance and selfishness. But he likes the boy. He chooses to listen to the feelings he has for the boy and in listening to those feelings he eventually succeeds in changing the boy’s attitude.

So what is the proper role of attitude and what does it reveal about us and what we think of those around us? Most have approached the world with a variety of different attitudes at different times in their lives. We have probably been as insufferable as the boy and as compassionate as the fisherman. We have probably have friends that those around us that do not know us well think are our enemies. Most have seen friends go on to become enemies.

I think that the attitudes that get us in the most trouble in life are the same attitudes that make us successful. That a good part of learning to live well is learning to discipline our attitudes so that we are perhaps as Mr. Twain advises; that we conceal how much we think of ourselves and our abilities and how little we think of others. Perhaps the wisdom in cultivating this attitude is that over time we can look more realistically at ourselves and those around us without losing our confidence in our own talents or our ability to compete with those whose skills we truly respect.

Walking in Beauty with the Night

Variations On “Ein Mädchen Oder Weibchen”, Op. 66
Ludwig Van Beethoven
András Schiff, Miklós Perényi

Walking in Beauty with the Night

Painiting of Queen of NIght descending against Night Sky

The arrival of the Queen of the Night. Stage set by Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781–1841) for an 1815 production

There is an article by Laura Miller in this week’s (11/30/08) New York Times “Sunday Book Review”. The article is called The Well-Tended Bookshelf and is about getting rid of books, of thinning the bookshelves in one’s private library. In addition to a discussion of the criteria different people use for getting rid of books she talks a bit about why people collect books in the first place. Among other things she talks about books as a way of signaling to those you find attractive your tastes and interests so that both parties can learn something about potential compatibility before things go too far (the article links to another article by Rachel Donadio that explores this topic in greater detail).

What does what we read reveal about us, are the titles on our shelves that revelatory? Do they necessarily reveal anything at all? Jay Gatsby in Fitzgerald’s book The Great Gatsby has an extensive library. However, as soon as any book in that library is removed from the shelf it is clear they serve only a decorative purpose, that they were selected to convey an image perhaps but the books themselves were never read nor were they purchased with any intent to read them. The Great Gatsby is set in a time when the pages of a book had to be cut before they could be read and the fact that the pages are uncut tells anyone looking at them that they are only for show. I know of people who go to library book sales and buy books based on how well the bindings blend with the interior decorating. Leather bound law books are especially popular, unreadable but impressive looking on any bookshelf.

Being one who accumulates books I can understand the desire some would have for getting rid of a few. I often go through my stacks (in the literal not the library sense) looking for things that might be discarded but am always flummoxed by the process. They all have an attraction. Time being what it is it is not likely they can all be re-read, though some may be rummaged for information. Still they represent a relationship of sorts, with ideas, characters, and evocative bits of language, not to mention the sentimental links to times and places in my personal biography. Somewhere I have a book that I got through The Weekly Reader when I was in the seventh grade. It is an old paperback edition of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.

Henry David Thoreau devotes a chapter of his book Walden to reading books of value. He does not have much patience for the light reading that fills the reading time, such as it is, of his contemporaries.  He thinks it unfortunate that so many spend so little time reading anything of consequence. He sees little value in reading the popular novels of the day or, even worse, the daily newspapers. He says at one point:

The works of the great poets have never yet been read by mankind, for only great poets can read them. They have only been read as the multitude read the stars, at most astrologically, not astronomically. Most men have learned to read to serve a paltry convenience, as they have learned to cipher in order to keep accounts and not be cheated in trade; but of reading as a noble intellectual exercise they know little or nothing; yet this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxury and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while, but what we have to stand on tip-toe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to.

He believes reading should stretch the mind and the imagination. He said he went to the woods in the first place to live deeply. Reading as he understands it is a part of the process of living deeply. I do not know if it is necessary to be a great poet to read great poetry but it certainly exercises the mind and imagination much more than the daily paper.

Thoreau was especially drawn to the classical literature, not just that of Greece and Rome, but the literature that formed the cultural foundations of most nations. He rates the classical literature of India and China at least as highly as that of Western Europe. Being associated with pacifist views his praise for a book like Homer’s Iliad might surprise some in that it is for the most part about men at war. But this book, as most national epics, is infused with the culture’s mythology and beliefs about the value of life and how it ought to be lived.

The music at the beginning is from a sonata for piano and cello by Beethoven. The theme of the concerto is taken from an opera by Mozart, The Magic Flute. It is a story revolving around love and enlightenment. There are birds, villains, and musical instruments with magical powers. Mozart got himself in a bit of trouble because it is said the opera reveals some of the secrets of the Masonic Order, of which Mozart was a member. But it also has at its heart the mythology of an ancient culture, Egypt.

The story involves princesses and princes but it also involves the ancient Egyptian deities, Isis and Osiris. They are associated with agriculture, which would have pleased Thoreau. The story of Isis and Osiris is a love story, as is the story of The Magic Flute. As with many quests for love and enlightenment it contains elements not only of the beautiful but of the horrific as well. The opera uses ancient Egyptian mythology to communicate Enlightenment ideas. What is horrific is intended to frighten us away from the irrational. As a rhetorical device this works well, but it is ironic that the “rhetoric” exploits our emotions in order to dissuade us from trusting them.

Painting of caged man screaming

Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953) desmoinesregister.com
Francis Bacon

Horror has always been popular in literature. Odysseus and his crew battle the Cyclops and Circe, one a monster the other a sorceress of awesome power. The 1001 Arabian Nights provide a generous array of monsters and villains. The epic literature of most nations have monsters of one kind or another in them and events that are truly terrifying. This tradition has been kept alive through the work of Edgar Allen Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, and Steven King. Horror films take the genre a step further perhaps by giving us the opportunity to see the mayhem, though, if the imagination has been properly trained no film can equal the horror of our own minds’ making. This is not because my imagination is better than that of the filmmakers but because my imagination tailors the horror to my own psyche not only by feeding the terrors that haunt me the most but by dressing those terrors in the colors that best amplify my fears.

Joseph Campbell on the Sublime

The painting by Francis Bacon captures what Campbell means by the sublime, that aspect of the ugly and the horrific that inspires awe. The painting does not attempt to be beautiful in the conventional sense, though some may find a degree of conventional beauty in the colors that are used. Sublime is a more useful term for that in art that moves us, inspires us, fills us with awe. The sublime can be beautiful but it can also be ugliness that achieves a kind of perfection. As Campbell points out, the sublime can be found in things of great beauty like the temple and its gardens in Kyoto. But is also seen in the horror of the atom bomb. It is beauty or dread that is so overwhelming that it confronts us with our own mortality and smallness. When Campbell talks about the sublime he often takes on religious overtones. But I think that is because the nature of the sublime is so overpowering.

I think we read to experience the sublime to a degree, to escape the bonds of our own ego and experience and to sample a world that is larger than ourselves. Whether enlightenment follows or not does not alter the fact that we have been moved and if we are not enlightened we are in some way altered. As Thoreau says the things we read should be large enough that they somehow enlarge us; that we have to stand on tippy-toes to get a glimpse of the world the book contains.

Required reading as it is practiced in school is always problematic. No one can be coerced into the sublime. A student made to read a book will at best read the book to fulfill the assignment and then forget it, unless the book, in spite of the circumstances under which it has been read, captures the student’s imagination. On the other hand if the imagination is never challenged, if students are never exposed to literature that rises to the level of the sublime, they may never know that it is out there to be found or fail to appreciate its significance when it is found. Our teachers often present great literature as if it is a thing of unspeakable beauty, something very fragile that must be handled delicately and with reverence. But this demeans great literature.

There is nothing “beautiful” as most understand beauty, in the tales Chaucer has the Summoner and the Miller tell us, or in many of the adventures of Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantegruel. These stories are gross, vulgar, and unsuited to mixed company, but they nonetheless capture something that is sublime in human experience. To grasp this aspect in the things we read, at least in those things we read that contain this quality, requires a bit of work. When we are told we must work at what we read in order to get this benefit it seems undesirable to many of us. But as Thoreau also pointed out, this kind of reading exercises the mind in the same way working out at a gym exercises the body. But this aside, what is it that repels us about work, as though work and enjoyment and pleasure are all unrelated? We have coupled, I think, work with tedium. Work can be tedious and sheer drudgery, but it does not have to be. In fact those things that are most satisfying and most enduring challenge us and require some effort on our part if their benefits are to be enjoyed in all their fullness.