January 16, 2019

Becoming an Expert Reader

“If we are to believe Deborah Mitford, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, her father, Lord Redesdale, read only one book in his life and that was White Fang. “He loved it so much he never read another. … ‘Dangerous good book,’ he used to say, ‘no point in trying any more.’ ” I also loved White Fang, but instead of desisting from books, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on more of them. Of course, I was barely a teenager at the time, and since then I’ve come across a few novels even better than White Fang—and some worse.

Nonetheless, Lord Redesdale, father of the notorious Mitford sisters, whose daughter Nancy wrote novels that he presumably opened, had a point. Reading ought to be pleasurable, so why waste time on poems or novels that don’t provide any? A plausible enough conceit that becomes bothersome only when we attempt to define reading pleasure. Should we even begin, or is the subject a spiraling Escheresque staircase whose ending is everywhere and nowhere? Pleasure? Surely no sane critic would approach the subject, not anymore, not today.

Frank Kermode was eminently reasonable and almost dishearteningly well read, but he took it on, in 2001, in two lectures delivered at the University of California–Berkeley. The lectures were later published as Pleasure and Change: The Aesthetics of Canon, boosted by commentaries from professors Geoffrey Hartman and John Guillory and theater director Carey Perloff. All too aware that the canon, as the product of privilege, is suspect by the very qualities that have traditionally defined literature, Kermode uses the word “canonical” advisedly, tapping books known in part because of the pleasure that is “a necessary though not obvious requirement of the canonical.””

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