Thursday, 30 July 2015

Books are (mostly) bad, but necessary

A sign of cultural decline is the fetichistic valorization of 'books' - as when people praise books as a class, or say that it is good when children read books.

But most books, especially most new books, are not just not-very-good but are very-bad-indeed - not merely in terms of being badly written, but by having bad topics, promoting bad attitudes, encouraging immorality and attacking virtue.

Take a look at the display window at your local new bookshop, or on an internet supplier - take a look at the best seller lists - books as a whole are pernicious, many are indeed evil. Books do a great deal of harm.

Yet books are also everything good, and all-but indispensable to our salvation in a public sphere that is so hostile to Good-ness - except that it is a small minority of books we are talking about mostly old books - and these are books that you will usually have to find for yourselves; because good-for-you books will only seldom (and unintentionally) be thrust at you in the same aggressive way that bad-for-you books are.

The good books are there, and they are easier to get at than ever before - but even the best of books does only half the job and the other half must be done by the reader. Perhaps the main danger to Good books is being taken lightly, gulped and swallowed so fast as hardly to be noticed - and never re-read.

If a book is worth reading, it is worth reading more than once. If you read and enjoy a book, but have no wish to re-read it, don't kid yourself: you are been dissipating your time. If you have never re-read a book then you might as well have been watching TV.

There are exceptions to this rule - some people remember after one reading - but even they cannot get much from a good book - a good book, a worthwhile book, has too much in it, to be assimilated by a single reading.


  1. Excellent advice, from which I do not wish to take anything away, but the phrase "if a book is worth reading it is worth reading twice" is not one, out of context, I can agree with. For example, a couple years ago I read the extremely long Anglican masterpiece Clarissa Harlowe which addresses in detail pretty much every emotional controversy and philosophical issue that a modern person can imagine, in the form of long mostly non-dramatic letters between the main characters . While I do intend to read it again, it is very possible (I am not all that young or healthy) that I will wind up reading it only once before I die, but it was definitely worth reading once, even if I never read it again, both for its own excellence and because it opened up my eyes to the treasures of a writer like Matthew Henry or like Thomas a Kempis (the former a writer who writes about Jesus the exact same way Clarissa does, the latter a favorite of Clarissa's, obviously a nice Anglican woman who did not exclude non-Anglicans from her scope of devotional reading). (A relevant anecdote I read about Matthew Henry was how a subsequent Evangelical preacher read Matthew Henry's multimillion word commentary on the Protestant Bible four times over, each time on his knees...).
    Also, there are many Agatha Christie novels I have read, not meaning to ever reread them, but I would not read Agatha Christie at all if I thought there were not at least one of her books (and so far, there are four = Evil under the Sun, Curtain, and the Orient Express and Nile extravaganzas) that I might plan to reread. Finally, "rereading entire books" is not a good goal, while "rereading books" may be a good goal - for example, I have read blog comments that lead me to believe that there are lots of people who like the Lord of the Rings even more than I do but who have absolutely no intention of ever reading it again without skipping certain parts that I would never skip, for example the Bombadil episode, and the three or four chapters in the Fellowship and the Two Towers with lots of elves - with which I can sympathize, as I have no intention to ever reread the Hobbit again without skipping some or most of the the unpleasantly rude to Cockneys troll chapter.

  2. @Sc - Good points. There are a lot of non-fiction, information books I have read once - having extracted the information I needed then there is no need to re-read. of course, most of them could easily have been reduced to essay length, but the fact is that they were books.

    You raise the question of whether reading a book entails reading every word - some great readers of the past such as Samuel Johnson and Ralph Waldo Emerson seldom read everything in a book, and indeed regarded that as an absurd and wasteful practice - very few and only the very best books deserving such minute attention.

  3. Agatha Christie might be an example of a book where "you might as well have been watching TV." Worth reading, yes. But there are many TV shows that are worth watching once, too. Not a lot of authors pass the "worth re-reading" test, but then you had to read the book once to find that out...

    I re-read LOTR at least once a year. Skip reading the songs, though.

  4. @JP - In contrast, I find I like Tolkien's poems and verse more the older I get.

  5. I came for the epic fights with the orcs and goblins, but I stayed for the poetry...

  6. I think it's an obvious corollary to this post that there are few things more valuable than lists of books compiled by those wiser than ourselves. So, may I take this opportunity to ask you (wiser than me) for a (even if very partial and incomplete) list of the books that, for you, pass the test you've outlined here? And/or a list compiled by someone you consider wiser than yourself? Thank you.

  7. @Jonathan - I am a great believer that the book you need will come your way, when you need it and want it - so long as you are open and alert. Reading books before you are ready for them is a waste of a book. So I don't place much value on lists of recommended books - not do I accept book recommendations from other people (unless I have specifically asked for a specific kind of book - but even them I often am disappointed). This is because books are like friends - and you know how difficult (and counter productive) it is to recommend friends!