Choosing a Book

I get restless if I don’t have a good book that I can look forward to at the end of the day. A lot of things go into choosing the requisite tome. I like works that are mentally stimulating without being ponderous.  My favorite nonfiction is the concise monograph (typically under 150 pages), like Gilson’s God and Philosophy, James McPherson on Lincoln, and John Keegan’s The Battle for History. Of course there are immense books like Boswell’s Life of Johnson that are anything but ponderous or dull. That said, a lot of big books get unread by me, and chances are by many other people. Even if a short volume doesn’t tell me everything about a subject, it’s more than I would get if I didn’t read anything at all. Another rule is that I never force myself to finish something I don’t like. That means with library books my checkout to completion ratio is something like four to one. But when I get hold of something good, it’s always gratifying to enjoy a book cover to cover.

Another consideration is the importance of re-reading. I think it’s better to get to know one really great book on a subject than to read a dozen mediocre volumes, or to be always hankering after something new that will merely evaporate from one’s short-term memory.  To immerse oneself in the world of a profound work is to dig into the layers of details and things that one might miss on the first perusal, and to study it further through helpful secondary authors. It means more than turning pages just to pass the time. Dante’s Divine Comedy, Augustine’s  City of God or Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War belong in this category.  At the same time one must be judicious. It’s good to find favorite authors, and stick with them, but there should be a balance between consistency and variety.

Finally there are books of essays. These days I prefer the continuous narrative to meandering anthologies. Exceptions are Plutarch’s biographical sketches and Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. Unlike the typical essay, they are comprehensive, self-contained, and masterfully written. They are small books in themselves. Otherwise, short articles are like hors d’oeuvres. I enjoy sampling pieces of Orwell, Camus, Mauriac or Waugh. As with beloved full-length volumes I will often go back to the treasured essay many times, for example Belloc discoursing vigorously on Livy or Boswell. But I can’t imagine trying to make a full-course meal out of a plate of appetizers. These are no more than snacks in between larger literary repasts.

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