On reading canonical literature

Tyler Cowen takes up the question of how to read canonical Western literature. The suggestions are characteristically good (and characteristically surprising). But they miss what I take to be the most important and difficult point: Everything must be done to get yourself in a position of maximum receptivity to the text.

Tyler wants us to read very quickly the first time; to consult secondary literature along the way; and sometimes to read the first fifty pages twice before reading anything else at all. There's a place for all of these. But consider that:

  1. Many canonical works are widely misunderstood;
  2. Many canonical works function by producing certain effects that are inseparable from their linear-temporal structure (as George Saunders would put it);
  3. Many canonical works are fundamentally strange to us now, so that it's often unknowable which parts of it one will be in a position to appreciate on a first reading.

Some hopefully illustrative, but obviously personal, reflections:

  1. I read The Scarlet Letter for the first time a couple years ago. It was, for me, totally unlike its reputation (or its reputation to me); I view it as a sort of origin-story of America. Most of what I found most moving was not the stuff about public shame, hypocrisy, and so on. I don't think I would have appreciated it as well had I followed Tyler's advice.
  2. I have a Ph.D. in ancient Greek philosophy. The accumulated wisdom about Plato is important, sure--but when I (try to) help people read Plato, I instruct them to read linearly, to appreciate what they can, and to struggle with the arguments and observations as they encounter them. (Then get help.)
  3. There's a time--hopefully, lots of time--for studying (say) Milton and Whitman in the way Tyler proposes. But if you're sitting down with them, the thing to do is just to try to focus, read as carefully as you can, and enjoy the ride. (More generally, I think Tyler's advice is a bit better for certain kinds of prose than it is for poetry and everything else.)

Would you consume a sermon in the way Tyler suggests? (Would you commit in advance to consuming all the best sermons that way?)

The advice is still good, overall, though. Perhaps the correct Straussian reading of the post is that culture matters too much and is too local (we know Tyler believes this, right?) for us to really understand canonical Western literature any more, and this is advice for a sort of desperate second-best strategy, but laced with optimism so as not to discourage us.

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