Many times I’ve referenced philosopher Roger Scruton’s approach to reading and education (see related post). I finally came across the original quote:
The primary purpose of a university education in the Humanities is to teach student to read a book. If you can read one book, you can read many. But if you learn to glance at thousands, you will probably never learn how to extract the meaning from a single one (Untimely Tracts).
This is good advice, both in understanding a subject and writing about it. How much verbiage reveals half-digested facts and trivial dogmatizing on barely comprehended subjects? Even if research tools (like the internet) have put more information in writers’ hands, they still need intellectual discipline to use it wisely. Another interesting quote comes from Scruton’s Philosopher on Dover Beach. It is from his essay on Pablo Picasso.
As the demand for biographies increases, so does their quality decline. For reasons that have little to do with the love of literature, and still less with the love of life, biographies are now comprehensive, packed with trivial detail, and burdened by a scholarship which, through its obsession with fact-finding, raises up an insuperable obstacle to truth…. All are very long, and all explore… the most intimate features of their victims’ earthly journey. Most are written in an easy-going, middle-brow patter, reminding their readership that the lives of the great can be described in terms of the very same conceptions as rule the feelings of the gullible. In short, the modern biography is an exercise in vicarious living: and vicarious living is the enemy of life.
I share his lament. It often seems that the fixation on academic banalities, like endless footnoting – as if “facts” and “truth” were the same thing – is meant to compensate for sordid minutiae and gossip. But there are some bright spots. In addition to the solid postwar biographies, which combined modernity of style with traditional acumen and good taste (e.g., Pernoud on Peter Abelard or Molnar on Sartre), there are a handful of recent life studies worth looking into, such as Francine Du Plessix Gray’s volume on Simone Weil and David Lebedoff’s dual biography of Orwell and Waugh.