The Ruthless Reader

Alas, Madam! How few books are there of which one can ever possibly arrive at the last page. — Samuel Johnson (Piozzi: Anecdotes)

I recently tossed aside three books, including two that I made the mistake of buying. The first was a mediocre detective fiction anthology; the second was a study on the philosophy of Dante, in which the author spent all his time on academic controversies; and the last was a work of religious apologetics that would have been perfect for me twenty years ago, but which I have no time for at the moment.

“Read the best ones first.” But how can we know which are best without sampling widely?

Judgement is forced upon us by experience. He that reads many books must compare one opinion or one style with another; and when he compares, must necessarily distinguish, reject, and prefer (Johnson, Life of Pope).

I think the best practice is not to have false scruples about finishing everything one starts. Of course, I still feel obliged to be a completionist with the best books. Appropos of good reading is good writing. Someone once said that “style is everything.” When asked about the importance of the thought behind a book he added, “why, that is style too.” In fact, a book can be stimulating simply because of the clarity or pertinence of the author’s ideas. On the other hand, an impeccably written book may be dull because its subject is bad or irrelevant.

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