The hedonism of reading good books makes its mark on the meaning of a life, infusing it with a richness that can be had at no dearer a price than that of a library card—which is to say, it can be had for free by anyone who is not so foolish as to fail to go after it…
So begins William Hazlitt’s essay “On Reading Old Books.” The title will remind readers of C.S. Lewis’s similarly named but much more well-known essay “On the Reading of Old Books,” which originally served as the introduction to a translation of St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. But beyond the general injunction to read old masters, the two essays have very little (though more than nothing) in common. Where Lewis focuses on the dangers of contemporary prejudice and the atmospheric contamination, as it were, of false assumptions—both of which we can mitigate in effect by temporarily displacing ourselves in time and space through reading—Hazlitt stresses the importance of older writers. He does this because (1) there is a greater likelihood that they are worth reading; (2) they are essential to the personal development of the individual; and (3) they are high-water marks of formal and stylistic virtuosity from which something can be learned despite philosophical disagreement.
First, it is a truism that old books that are still read have stood the test of time (there are others that deserve to have done so but have been forgotten; that is a different story, touched on “In Praise of Scholarship”). As Hazlitt says, with nice understatement, “I do not think altogether the worse of a book for having survived the author a generation or two.” As Lewis would write over a century later, “A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it.” But where Lewis emphasizes ignorance, Hazlitt stresses the calm and serenity of opening an old volume: “[T]he dust and smoke and noise of modern literature have nothing in common with the pure, silent air of immortality.” This may sound romantic, or even absurd, but I confess to having had precisely this sensation myself on many occasions.
There are, of course, good new books and bad old books. But the sheer volume of what is published—an issue since the invention of the printing press, even if more insistent now given the rise of new technologies—makes the work of winnowing wheat from chaff difficult, and time is finite. (Lest I be misunderstood, I think this a happy development in most respects, although attended by some of the challenges Hazlitt notes. Indeed, without such technologies, Hazlitt would have had access to far fewer books, as would we.) As Hazlitt remarks:
[I]n…turning to a well-known author, there is not only an assurance that my time will not be thrown away, or my palate nauseated with the most insipid or vilest trash,—but I shake hands with, and look an old, tried, and valued friend in the face,—compare notes, and chat the hours away.
Can a value be assigned to nurturing an intellectual friendship, albeit a somewhat imaginary one, with a Vergil, a Shakespeare, an Augustine? Surely not. I shall return to this point below.
Hazlitt’s perspective is, then, somewhat different from Lewis’, whose main concern is the characteristic “blindness” of every age as with respect to its own faults (“Every age… is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period”). Where Hazlitt is pragmatic and personal, Lewis focuses on the ethical and the social. Both are correct.
Second, Hazlitt gives a beautiful description of the way in which our early reading can help to form who we are for the rest of our lives. The books we love while young contribute to our development as individuals in no more imaginary a way than learning to ride a bike or the first day of middle school does. The enjoyment they yield, in other words, is not empty: These books play a part in the formation of our memories, the pattern we discern as our lives unfold, and therefore help to constitute our very selves. Hazlitt says this explicitly: “In reading a book which is an old favourite with me (say the first novel I ever read) I not only have the pleasure of imagination and of a critical relish of the work, but the pleasures of memory added to it.” In fact, re-reading one’s favorite books can serve in some ways as dreamlike time travel, or even an otherwise impossible bilocation, in which we can—for a brief moment—simultaneously put one foot in our past and another in our present. As he puts it:
It recalls the same feelings and associations which I had in first reading it, and which I can never have again in any other way. Standard productions of this kind are links in the chain of our conscious being. They bind together the different scattered divisions of our personal identity. They are land-marks and guides in our journey through life. They are pegs and loops on which we can hang up, or from which we can take down, at pleasure, the wardrobe of a moral imagination, the relics of our best affections, the tokens and records of our happiest hours.
And yet the present remains the present, to which past is prologue. Hazlitt has no interest in speculating on what it would be like to go back to one’s youth with the wisdom of experience, as Uncle Rico wishes to do in Napoleon Dynamite. In fact, part of the gratification of re-reading, say, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (which in Hazlitt’s day was not only not old but not in existence—we must remember that what counts as “old” is on a sliding scale) is to be fetched back to a world without this “burthen,” as Hazlitt puts it. “A sage philosopher,” Hazlitt says, “who was not a very wise man, said, that he should like very well to be young again, if he could take his experience along with him.” (Compare Uncle Rico’s “Don’t you ever wish you could go back with all the knowledge you have now?”) Hazlitt protests, with a touch of melancholy, that it is a mistake to try to transmogrify youth into adulthood or introduce adulthood into youth. “This ingenious person did not seem to be aware, by the gravity of his remark, that the great advantage of being young is to be without this weight of experience, which he would fain place upon the shoulders of youth, and which never comes too late with years.” The peculiarities of youth must be respected and can never be repeated. But the reading of an “old favourite” can, like a game of catch with one’s son, provide an evanescent and plaintive reminder of what it was like to be in the world without having experienced the world.
Thirdly, the best old books are both aesthetic masterpieces and good to think with. Hazlitt recalls obtaining copies of John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France when he was 20. I note in passing that Hazlitt provides perhaps the best and briefest response to the supposed problem of Milton’s supposed “sympathy for the Devil,” that is, his making Satan a sometimes attractive figure: “Milton has there drawn, not the abstract principle of evil, not a devil incarnate, but a fallen angel. This is the Scriptural account, and the poet has followed it…. Let us hear no more then of this monkish cant, and bigotted outcry for the restoration of the horns and tail of the devil!”
The incident to which Hazlitt refers must have occurred around 1798. Though Paradise Lost surely would have been counted as old by this point, Burke’s Reflections had only recently appeared in 1790. It was therefore still relatively new, all things considered, even when Hazlitt wrote this essay a couple of decades after his first encounter, and certainly at the point of the encounter itself. “Old,” then, has a rather loose and inclusive meaning, here apparently signifying “old to me now from my present perspective, within the scope of my span of life”—another reminder of the almost exclusively personal and particular focus of this essay. (In fact, Hazlitt ends by contradicting his first sentence toto caelo in his final remark: “I should also like to read the last new novel (if I could be sure it was so) of the author of Waverley:—no one would be more glad than I to find it the best!” “The author of Waverley” was Sir Walter Scott—Hazlitt’s contemporary! When reading his pronouncements, one must not take them too “straight,” lest one forget his wit and the wry self-understanding smile.)
Hazlitt’s comments on the Reflections provide good insight to his mind and the catholicity of his reading. He did not like Burke on politics but he respected him and saw him as a genius. “I took a particular pride and pleasure in [Burke’s Reflections], and read it to myself and others for months afterwards. I had reason for my prejudice in favour of this author. To understand an adversary is some praise: to admire him is more. I thought I did both: I knew I did one.” Of Burke’s style, he remarks, “I said to myself, ‘This is true eloquence: this is a man pouring out his mind on paper.’ All other style seemed to me pedantic and impertinent.” It was a style he described as “forked and playful as the lightning, crested like the serpent,” an evaluation quoted by Russell Kirk in the second chapter of The Conservative Mind.
But Hazlitt’s admiration was not limited to Burke’s style. It extended to the style as the servant of his substance. The two are not the same (“I thought myself that an abstract proposition was one thing—a masterly transition, a brilliant metaphor, another”), but neither are they easily disentangled. And while Hazlitt did not agree with the substance as a whole, he could find truths in its parts: “I did not care for his doctrines. I was then, and am still, proof against their contagion; but I admired the author…. I conceived, too, that he might be wrong in his main argument, and yet deliver fifty truths in arriving at a false conclusion.”
Books like Burke’s could provide, in other words, the pleasure of a good and rigorous argument, one not divorced from rhetorical niceties that could be revered even if they outstripped his ability to imitate them.
What Hazlitt is really driving at, it seems to me, is the obligation of the thinking individual to form a personal canon of favorite authors and texts. Just as we differ as individuals, our personal canons will differ. But we should all nevertheless have one, and not take anyone else’s word for it. It is to be made, not borrowed. The reasons given are frankly somewhat epicurean: the pleasure of time well spent; the pleasure of memory; the pleasure of watching a master at work—and it bears repeating that we should include some masters whose ideas we do not like.
But this hedonism, such as it is, makes its mark on the meaning of a life, infusing it with a richness that can be had at no dearer a price than that of a library card, which is to say, it can be had for free by anyone who is not so foolish as to fail to go after it. As Hazlitt says, “To have lived in the cultivation of an intimacy with such works, and to have familiarly relished such names, is not to have lived quite in vain.”
Republished with gracious permission from The American Conservative (August 2018).
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