Masterpieces should be kept for High Holidays of the Spirit

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.
— Francis Bacon, Of Studies

As a teacher of literature, I used to wonder if my students should limit their diet to the reading of great books alone. But I am now persuaded that such a demand qualifies as a gluttony of delicacy, in which the reader gorges too greedily and fussily on gourmet literature. A salade niçoise or lobster roll is a special treat for lunch precisely because it contrasts to the ordinariness of a mixed green salad or hot dog. The same principle applies to our reading. Consider what the literary critic Alan Jacobs says below in his essay, “How to Read a Book,” from a volume of essays entitled, Liberal Arts for the Christian Life:

If we want to learn how to read books, Bacon’s model serves as a wonderful guide—for readers in general and even for Christian readers in particular. The first point we will want to note is that not all books deserve the same attention from us. Readers must be discerning in this matter. Note that Bacon does not tell us to read only the greatest books, to live on a diet of masterpieces; rather, he assumes that we will read books of varying quality. Why? Why shouldn’t we read the best and only the best?

The poet W. H. Auden once wrote, “When one thinks of the attention that a great poem demands, there is something frivolous about the notion of spending every day with one. Masterpieces should be kept for High Holidays of the Spirit.” The word “frivolous” is particularly interesting here: Auden thinks that it would be rather silly to think that we can just sit down any old time and rise to the challenge of a great poem or novel or work of philosophy. Their greatness depends in large part on their determination to challenge us: by forcing us to think thoughts that never would have crossed our minds, by forcefully plunging us into alien experiences, or by gently touching our hearts, such works disrupt the familiar rhythms of our lives. Immanuel Kant once wrote that reading David Hume woke him from a “dogmatic slumber.” That’s what all great books do to us—but it’s hard on the system to be so awakened, and we’re not up for that every day.


2 thoughts on “Masterpieces should be kept for High Holidays of the Spirit

  1. Pingback: Books To Be Chewed And Digested | the theological beard

  2. I think this is wise counsel. It’s easy for me to get into the thought process that the best is all that I deserve – a mistaken thought process. This is especially good for me to think about since I go to a school like Arkansas. I do not wholly stand behind all the choices of the English department makes for its classes and reading lists. This advice frees me up to read whatever a professor may ask me to read – prudently.

    Thank you for sharing this.

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