I am a reader. I usually have two or three books on the go at the same time. A good thriller is one of my basic pleasures, and I tend to read it slowly, picking it up and putting it down after a few chapters. I like the sense of anticipation of what is coming next as I insert a book marker or fold over the corner of a page when I have reached a particularly exciting moment.
But, as I said, I read everything, and one of my chief delights, like most avid readers, is novels. And when it comes to novels, I follow a practice first adopted many years ago from an old English teacher of mine.
In my secondary school, we had a book ordering service. Once a month, we would be given a list of books from which we could make our choices. Because it was a school-based system, the books were inexpensive, and because of this, it encouraged us to take a chance on a book that was then a mystery.
I first read Tolstoy’s War and Peace in this way. It took me a long time to finish, but there are certain passages where I always ‘hear’ a kind of echo of my first reading of this extraordinary book. Such as that wonderful scene during the Battle of Austerlitz, when the vain Prince Andrei, having led an ill-fated cavalry charge, while lying on the ground, badly wounded, has an almost mystical experience as he realises all his former ambitions really amount to nothing in the balance of life and death.
I know I found the book hard-going that first time, and there were bits I am sure floated over my head, but that scene and my appropriation of it, making it part of myself, a kind of touchstone to which my imagination has returned again and again, was one of the earliest revelations I had as to the power of an ‘old book’ to feed the soul.
The practice I mentioned earlier that I picked up from my English teacher, and which I have followed all my reading life was this – for every few new books you read, read an old book as well. By an old book, he meant a book that had passed the judgment of time.
When I asked him why, he explained that a new book – the latest novel, the chart-topping best-seller – is still on trial, still awaiting the judgment of time. I am not now talking about thrillers, however good they may be, but the books that make a claim to be something more than just a ‘good read’, books that aspire to be taken on a level with a classic like War and Peace, whether it’s the latest Martin Amis or Jonathan Franzen or Salman Rushdie or John Banville.
Each of these authors has established a certain reputation for excellence so that each new offering is awaited with that frisson of anticipated pleasure that points to the presence of that indefinable but unmistakeable sense of an ‘event’.
Yet we do not know, nor can we know, if a novel by one of these authors, or by any contemporary author you may care to substitute, will still be read 50 years or a century from now. When Charles Dickens, whose anniversary is being celebrated this year, was working as a novelist, his contemporaries included Theodore Hook, Harrison Ainsworth, and Mrs Humphrey Ward ...
What my old English teacher meant was that we require a standard by which we can begin to put into perspective the achievements, or not, of contemporary authors. Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, Herman Melville, Honore de Balzac, Alessandro Manzini, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, to select at random, have all passed the test of both time and continued reading.
It is not that there are no novelists now writing that are as good as the ones I’ve mentioned. It is that we simply do not know how time will judge them. But we do know how readers have judged the likes of Dickens and Tolstoy. The ‘negative’ of such positive assessments is in Dr Johnson’s observation on Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, that “nothing odd will do long”, a sentence I would pass on Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, a book whose life has been artificially prolonged through becoming an academic ‘milch cow’.
Perhaps the kind of thing my teacher was talking about was proposed by poet and critic Matthew Arnold (1822-1888 ), in Culture and Anarchy, where he proposed as a standard of excellence “the best which has been thought and said”.
Old books give us a gold standard against which to weigh what is new and untested.