May 21, 2019

The Quiet Joys of a Bookish Life

“The village idiot of the shtetl of Frampol was offered the job of waiting at the village gates to greet the arrival of the Messiah. “The pay isn’t great,” he was told, “but the work is steady.” The same might be said about the conditions of the bookish life: low pay but steady work. By the bookish life, I mean a life in which the reading of books has a central, even a dominating, place. I recall some years ago a politician whose name is now as lost to me as it is to history who listed reading among his hobbies, along with fly-fishing and jogging. Reading happens to be my hobby, too, along with peristalsis and respiration.

Like the man—the fellow with the name ­Solomon, writing under the pen name ­Ecclesiastes—said, “Of the making of many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” So many books are there in the world that no one can get round to even all the best among them, and hence no one can claim to be truly well-read. Some ­people are merely better-read than others. Nobody has read, or can read, everything, and by everything I include only the good, the beautiful, the important books.

The first question is “How can one tell which books qualify as good, beautiful, important?” In an essay of 1978 called “On Reading Books: A Barbarian’s Cogitations,” Alexander ­Gerschenkron, a Harvard economist of wide learning, set out three criteria: A good book must be interesting, memorable, and rereadable. This is as sensible as it is ­unhelpful. How can one know if a book is ­interesting until one has read it; memorable until time has or has not lodged it in one’s memory; rereadable until the decades pass and one feels the need to read it again and enjoys it all the more on doing so?”

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