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by William H. Benson

February 18, 2010

     “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.”

     And with that brief introduction, Mark Twain began his story, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, publishing it in 1885, on this date, February 18. No one knew then that a boy’s story, about Huck Finn, a fourteen-year-old boy, and Jim, a run-away slave, floating on a raft down the Mississippi River would earn its esteemed position in America’s literary works.

     Ernest Hemingway said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. . . . It’s the best book we’ve had.” And Harold Bloom, the literary critic, said that the first seven paragraphs of the book’s 19th chapter contain “the most beautifully written descriptive passage in all of American literature.”

     You may very well ask, “Why read and then reread this classic? or any classic? Why read literature at all? What is the benefit?” Mark Twain, invariably the humorist, defined the classics as “those books everybody says you should read but nobody does.”

     Students, especially the English majors, read them. Almost twenty years ago, the film critic David Denby decided that he would sit again in a student’s desk to read and discuss the classics. “In the fall of 1991, thirty years after entering Columbia University for the first time, I went back to school and sat with eighteen-year-olds and read the same books that they read. Not just any books. Together we read Homer, Plato, Sophocles, Augustine, Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Virginia Woolf. Those books. Those courses.”

     Except for the David Denby’s, deep reading of the classics is a talent few wish to master, and so it remains underappreciated, as a useless waste of our time. Unlike basketball stars, championship trophies are not presented to the most expansive readers, who can boast, as H. L. Mencken did, that he “read like an athlete,” when in his teens.

     Listening to the television is the skill most resorted to today; people listen to the sports newscaster, to the talking heads in a news studio, and to the empty heads who act and speak in some simple-minded television comedy or mystery. Conversely, to read is to tune in, listen, and catch the dazzling and daring ideas of the best thinkers from the past. 

     Yes, some of the great books, such as Hegel’s works, are exceedingly dreary, unintelligible, unfulfilling, and boring. Yet, only by reading them again and again, though, can a student gain that critical eye, discerning the good from the bad, the intelligent from the stupid, and the correct from the flawed. Nietzsche warned us to ask always, “Who is the interpreter and what power does he seek to gain over the text?”

     Sometimes the writer’s research leads him or her into areas that we, the readers, do not want to go, and so the texts swamp our very minds. A Newsweek writer wrote this past week, “Some works are overwhelming. We see authors struggling to create masterpieces that on almost every page threaten to collapse under their own weight. . . . But who wouldn’t rather read a flawed masterpiece than none at all. After all, not even Twain could figure out the right way to end Huckleberry Finn.”

     We read every day in the newspapers sorry tales of people who committed themselves to the most foolish choices that left them so vulnerable, so easily persuaded and intimidated, and so misled and gullible. They failed to ask beforehand Nietzsche’s question, “Who is the interpreter and what power does he seek over the text?”

     Certain texts will never go away. Harold Bloom said that “Freud, genius that he was, failed to apprehend the permanent power of texts that cannot vanish: the Tanakh, the New Testament, and the Qur’an. If asked the desert island question, I would have to take Shakespeare, but the world continues drowning in the blood-dimmed tide of its Scriptures, whether it reads them or not.”

     He also argued that “reading well is one of the great pleasures that solitude can afford you, because it is, at least in my experience, the most healing of pleasures.”

     The next Great American Novel, that work which will eclipse Huckleberry Finn, is just ahead of us, perhaps around the corner, but few will recognize it when it appears, for genius is transcendent, beyond the limits of our thoughts, or as William Blake said, “The ages are all equal, but genius is always above its age.” Read well from those authors, such as Mark Twain, who dazzle us, our great cloud of witnesses to the human condition.