How to Read a Book (and Develop Your Taste)

“[S]ince we are all moribund and since reading books is time-consuming, we must devise a system that allows us a semblance of economy. Of course there is no denying the possible pleasure of holing up with a fat, slow-moving, mediocre novel; still, we all know that we can indulge ourselves in that fashion only so much. In the end, we read not for reading’s sake, but to learn. Hence the need for concision, condensation, fusion—for the works that bring the human predicament, in all its diversity, into its sharpest possible focus; in other words, the need for a short cut. Hence, too […] the need for some compass in the ocean of available literature.

The role of that compass, of course, is eagerly played by literary criticism, by reviewers. Alas, its needle oscillates wildly. What is North for some is the South […] for others; the same goes in an even wilder degree for East and West. The trouble with a reviewer is (minimum) threefold: (A) he can be a hack, and as ignorant as ourselves, (B) he can have strong predilections for a certain kind of writing, or simply be on the take with the publishing industry, and (C) if he is a writer of talent, he will turn his review-writing into an independent art form—Jorge Luis Borges is a case in point—and you may end up by reading reviews rather than the books themselves.”

“[E]xtreme subjectivity, prejudice and indeed idiosyncrasy are what helps art to avoid cliché. And the resistance to cliché is what distinguishes art from life.”

The way to develop good taste in literature is to read poetry. […] For, being the supreme form of human locution, poetry is not only the most concise, the most condensed way of conveying the human experience; it also offers the highest possible standards for any linguistic operation—especially one on paper.

The more one reads poetry, the less tolerant one becomes of any sort of verbosity, be that in political or philosophical discourse, be that in history, social studies or the art of fiction. Good style in prose is always hostage to the precision, speed and laconic intensity of poetic diction. A child of epitaph and epigram, conceived indeed as a short cut to any conceivable subject matter, poetry to prose is a great disciplinarian. It teaches the latter not only the value of each word but also the mercurial mental patterns of the species, alternatives to linear composition, the knack of omitting the self-evident, emphasis on detail, the technique of anticlimax. Above all, poetry develops in prose that appetite for metaphysics that distinguishes a work of art from mere belles-lettres.”

“[P]oetry simply happens to be older than prose and thus has covered a greater distance. Literature started with poetry, with the song of a nomad that predates the scribblings of a settler. […] All I am trying to do is to be practical and spare your eyesight and brain cells a lot of useless printed matter. Poetry, one might say, has been invented for just this purpose—for it is synonymous with economy. What one should do, therefore, is repeat, albeit in miniature, the process that took place in our civilization in the course of two millennia. It is easier than you might think, for the body of poetry is far less voluminous than that of prose. What’s more, if you are concerned mainly with contemporary literature, then your job is indeed a piece of cake. All you have to do is to arm yourselves for a couple of months with the works of poets in your mother tongue, preferably from the first half of this century. I suppose you’ll end up with a dozen rather slim books, and by the end of the summer you—that is, your literary taste—will be in great shape.

If your mother tongue is English, I may recommend to you Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop.”

“If after going through the works of any of these, you would drop a book of prose picked from the shelf, it won’t be your fault. If you’d continue to read it, that will be to the author’s credit; that will mean that this author has indeed something to add to the truth about our existence as it was known to these few poets just mentioned; that would prove at least that this author is not redundant, that his language has an independent energy or grace.”

“Let me draw a caricature here, for caricatures accentuate the essential. In this caricature I see a reader whose both hands are occupied with holding open books. In the left, he holds a collection of poems, in the right, a volume of prose. Let’s see which he drops first. Of course, he may […] ask what distinguishes good poetry from bad, and where is his guarantee that what he holds in his left hand is indeed worth bothering with?

Well, for one thing what he holds in his left hand will be, in all likelihood, lighter than what he holds in the right. Secondly, poetry, as [Eugenio] Montale once put it, is an incurably semantic art, and the chances for charlatanism in it are extremely low. By the third line a reader will know what sort of thing he holds in his left hand, for poetry makes sense fast and the quality of language in it makes itself felt immediately. After three lines he may take a glance at what he has in the right.”

Joseph Brodsky, “How to Read a Book” (1988)


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