“Good reading, therefore, though it is not essentially an affectional or moral or intellectual activity, has something in common with all three. In love we escape from our self into one other. In the moral sphere, every act of justice or charity involves putting ourselves in the other person’s place and thus transcending our own competitive particularity. In coming to understand anything we are rejecting the facts as they are for us in favour of the facts as they are. The primary impulse of each is to maintain and aggrandise himself. The secondary impulse is to go out of the self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness. In love, in virtue, in the pursuit of knowledge, and in the reception of the arts, we are doing this. Obviously this process can be described either as an enlargement or as a temporary annihilation of the self. But that is an old paradox; ‘he that loseth his life shall save it’.
“In the fall of 1811 Noah Webster, working steadily through the C’s, defined commonsense as ‘good sound ordinary sense … free from emotional bias or intellectual subtlety … horse sense.’ This is rather a flattering view of the creature, for the biography of commonsense makes nasty reading. Commonsense has trampled down many a gentle genius whose eyes had delighted in a too early moonbeam of some too early truth; commonsense has back-kicked dirt at the loveliest of queer paintings because a blue tree seemed madness to its well-meaning hoof; commonsense has prompted ugly but strong nations to crush their fair but frail neighbors the moment a gap in history offered a chance that it would have been ridiculous not to exploit. Commonsense is fundamentally immoral, for the natural morals of mankind are as irrational as the magic rites that they evolved since the immemorial dimness of time. Commonsense at its worst is sense made common, and so everything is comfortably cheapened by its touch. Commonsense is square whereas all the most essential visions and values of life are beautifully round, as round as the universe or the eyes of a child at its first circus show.
“[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. Continue reading