It is astonishing what a herd of people nowadays want to be told what to read. It has become a disease, spreading throughout the mass. I recoil from it with horror.—Hilaire Belloc, “On the Selection of Books”
Such expressions of nonconformity are a nice change of pace from the collectivist culture one encounters, for example, in the book choices of the self-appointed literary commissar Oprah Winfree. The moral and intellectual “paralysis of our time,” says Belloc, “has destroyed all power of selection.” I doubt that any age has been free of it, but in the past century the centralization and standardization of taste has reached new depths. To some extent online media does offer alternatives, but it’s still up to the individual to make use of them. What Belloc hints at is the old fashioned virtue of discrimination. The selection of books first of all “means elimination” of what is bad or uninteresting. He offers these further comments:
If, in such picking and choosing of a few words, you find a glimmer of sense, of humour, or of information, account yourself a discoverer and have a stab at the thing. It will probably prove not worth your while; the first page will be quite enough to tell you. But if it turns out just tolerable, why, then, supposing you have nothing else to do, attempt to read it. You need not read it through.
I thinks his advice is sound. I only read about one out of five books I pick up. Even many of these are not perused in their entirety. Often I can get the gist of a work from the first chapter. Some of my best reading has been from random passages in books on library shelves. That said, there are plenty of favorite volumes that I still consume from cover to cover.