I remember reading an essay by Roger Scruton extolling the virtues of reading a book—not a slew of books or a lot butchered and randomized excerpts from books. What Scruton means, as I recall, is that a student should be given the opportunity to study a classic work at length and at leisure, allowing him to trace the author’s thought and narrative development. What sets a literary masterpiece apart from other works is hard to describe, though we know it when we see it. Newman said that a classic is something we enjoy as much in old age as in youth. Another clue is that it tells us much more than its stated subject. The work references life on many levels, and over time it actually becomes a point of reference for the rest of the world.
Great books are a kind of vocation for the author, and for the reader they provide a lifetime of contemplation as well. Such a volume is The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. Another is Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Yet another is James Boswell’s Life of Johnson. As Charles Grosvenor Osgood noted, Boswell poured all his artistic energies into it, “as Milton poured his into Paradise Lost, and Vergil his into the Aeneid.” It is usually true, as Johnson said, that what is written without effort is read without pleasure. We enjoy a classic because of the loving work that went into it. Along those lines, one of my favorite descriptions of the crafting of a literary opus is from Ronald Knox’s preface to his own masterpiece, Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion:
There is a kind of book about which you may say, almost without exaggeration, that it is the whole of a man’s literary life, the unique child of his thought. Other writings may have been published, on this or that occasion. . . . But it was all beside the mark. The Book was what mattered—he had lived with it all these years, fondled it in his waking thoughts, used it as an escape from anxiety, a solace in long journeys, in tedious conversations. Did he find himself in a library, he made straight for the shelves which promised light on one cherished subject; did he hit upon a telling quotation, a just metaphor, an adroit phrase, it was treasured up, in miser’s fashion, for the Book.