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by William H. Benson

November 30, 2006

     Today, November 30th, marks the birthdays of three celebrated writers: Jonathan Swift in 1667, Mark Twain, in 1835, and Winston Churchill in 1874.

     Jonathan Swift, an English Protestant cleric living in Ireland, wrote a novel, Gulliver’s Travels, but primarily he wrote essays in which he displayed his satiric wit.  For example, in his essay The Battle of the Books, Swift told of a war in a library between the old books and the new books, between the classics of old and the modern books.  This reflected the actual quarrel then going on between the scholars who were proud to be modern and those who preferred the ancient thinkers.

     Sam Clemens, aka Mark Twain, wrote fiction.  But his best fiction—Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn—he lifted from his childhood experiences when growing up in Hannibal, Missouri.  In his later years, he tried to write his autobiography but became so muddled and confused about the facts that he made a jumble of it.  And so it is said that Clemens’s fiction was more autobiography, and that his autobiography was more fiction.

     In a speech, the Disappearance of Literature, Twain defined a classic as something that everybody wants to have read and yet nobody wants to read.

     Winston Churchill wrote history.  He would select a broad subject, much too large for a single text, and then write a series of volumes on that subject.  For example, he wrote the four-volume A History of the English-Speaking People and the six-volume The Second World War, and won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1953.  

     An interesting question to ask is “which kind of writing is best to read?  Essay, fiction, history, religious, inspirational, scientific, technical, humorous?”  The obvious answer is that it depends upon a person’s tastes, preferences, and personal inclinations.  I prefer history and essay and biography.  Most modern readers prefer mysteries or romances.

     But a better question to ask is “why read anything?”  George Bernard Shaw said that “he who can does.  He who cannot teaches.”  A critic of reading might twist Shaw’s comment into “he who is does.  He who is not reads.”

     Harold Bloom, the Yale literary critic, recently wrote How to Read and Why in which he said, “It matters, if individuals are to retain any capacity to form their own judgments and opinions, that they continue to read for themselves. . . . We read frequently, if unknowingly, in quest of a mind more original than our own.”

     Bloom then quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson who said that “the best books impress us with the conviction that one nature wrote and the same reads.”  And of books Emerson said, “I value them to make my top spin.”

     “Yet, “Bloom wrote, “the strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading of the now much-abused traditional [Western] canon is the search for a difficult pleasure.”  A “difficult pleasure?”  To be found in reading?  Perhaps.

     Literate skill, letter writing, and the ability to read and then write are not as prized as one time.  “A childhood largely spent watching television yields to an adolescence with a computer, and the university receives a student unlikely to welcome the suggestion that we must endure [reading].”  In place of the deep reading of texts and the writing of term papers, our society presents us with forms dotted with blank spaces in which we drop words and numbers.

     When asked to construct a paragraph or even a sentence or two, some flinch at the request and beg for true/false, multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, and matching rather than the essay question.  And yet ours is a complex society, requiring a mastery of multiple texts and a tidal wave of information, and the talent to string words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs to make sense of it all.

     With expansive reading, Harold Bloom also wrote, the pupil may restore her or his sense of irony, sensing that words may express something other than their literal meaning.  “Irony demands a certain attention span, and the ability to sustain antithetical ideas, even when they collide with one another.”

     Swift’s essays, Twain’s fiction, and Churchill’s history.  They are all in the library, and they cost you nothing but your time.