The public schools of those days were still virgin forests, untouched by the hand of reform. Keate was still reigning at Eton; and we possess, in the records of his pupils, a picture of the public school education of the early nineteenth century, in its most characteristic state. It was a system of anarchy tempered by despotism. Hundreds of boys, herded together in miscellaneous boarding-houses, or in that grim ‘Long Chamber’ at whose name in after years aged statesmen and warriors would turn pale, lived, badgered and overawed by the furious incursions of an irascible little old man carrying a bundle of birch-twigs, a life in which licensed barbarism was mingled with the daily and hourly study of the niceties of Ovidian verse.
It was a life of freedom and terror, of prosody and rebellion, of interminable floggings and appalling practical jokes. Keate ruled, unaided—for the undermasters were few and of no account—by sheer force of character. But there were times when even that indomitable will was overwhelmed by the flood of lawlessness. Every Sunday afternoon he attempted to read sermons to the whole school assembled; and every Sunday afternoon the whole school assembled shouted him down. The scenes in Chapel were far from edifying; while some antique Fellow doddered in the pulpit, rats would be let loose to scurry among the legs of the exploding boys. But next morning the hand of discipline would reassert itself; and the savage ritual of the whipping-block would remind a batch of whimpering children that, though sins against man and God might be forgiven them, a false quantity could only be expiated in tears and blood.
The boys’ main study remained the dead languages of Greece and Rome. That the classics should form the basis of all teaching was an axiom with Dr. Arnold. ‘The study of language,’ he said, ‘seems to me as if it was given for the very purpose of forming the human mind in youth; and the Greek and Latin languages seem the very instruments by which this is to be effected.’ Certainly, there was something providential about it—from the point of view of the teacher as well as of the taught. If Greek and Latin had not been ‘given’ in that convenient manner, Dr. Arnold, who had spent his life in acquiring those languages, might have discovered that he had acquired them in vain. As it was, he could set the noses of his pupils to the grindstone of syntax and prosody with a clear conscience. Latin verses and Greek prepositions divided between them the labours of the week.
As time went on he became, he declared, ‘increasingly convinced that it is not knowledge, but the means of gaining knowledge which I have to teach’. The reading of the school was devoted almost entirely to selected passages from the prose writers of antiquity. ‘Boys,’ he remarked, ‘do not like poetry.’ Perhaps his own poetical taste was a little dubious; at any rate, it is certain that he considered the Greek Tragedians greatly overrated, and that he ranked Propertius as ‘an indifferent poet’. As for Aristophanes, owing to his strong moral disapprobation, he could not bring himself to read him until he was forty, when, it is true, he was much struck by the ‘Clouds’. But Juvenal, the Doctor could never bring himself to read at all.
The following comes from a section where Socrates Scholasticus is discrediting Greek polytheism by reporting on the corruptibility of the oracles
Socrates Scholasticus, 3.23.155-170
“The oracle claims that it is Attis, the one who killed himself because of sex madness, and Adonis, and Dionysus. When Alexander the King of the Macedonians was crossing to Asia, the Amphictiones were trying to please him and the Pythian oracle reported these things:
Zeus, highest of the gods, and Athena Tritogeneia
Honor them, and the lord hidden in a thundrous body,
The one whom Zeus sowed on his noble knees
A helper of Good-law to mortals, Alexander the King!
The divine authority at Pythia prophesied these things. And in this, it used to even flatter powerful people by making gods. For perhaps it it did this for flattery. For why would the oracle say, as it did when apotheosizing the boxer Kleomedes, these things about him:
“We must rebuke not only those sophists but also those who promise to teach political oratory—for these guys don’t care at all about the truth but instead think that it is an art because they get the greatest number of students thanks to the small size of their fee and the greatness of their pronouncements and then they get something from them.
They are so imperceptive and imagine everyone else to be that even though they write speeches worse than some of the untrained masses compose, they still guarantee that they will make their students the kinds of politicians who never leave out any of the possibilities in a matter.
Even worse, they don’t derive any of that power from their experiences or the talent of a student, but they say that they can train the knowledge of speaking as they would basic literacy—in reality, each of them believe that because of the insanity of their promises they will be objects of wonder and that people will think that training in their discipline is worth more than it is. In this, they have not even considered that the people who make arts great are not those who dare to boast about them, but those who have the ability to discover what the power of each art is on its own.”
“Reading is not an amusement filling the languid pauses between the hours of action; it is the one pursuit engrossing all the hours and the whole mind.”
I never went to graduate school, and yet it happens that I am badly afflicted with grad student syndrome – the compulsion to read more before putting anything of my own down on paper. Perhaps the best literary exemplar of this tendency is the figure of Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, whose Key to All Mythologies remained until his death in the note-taking phase, despite its having been his entire life’s work. I have read a reasonable amount in my life, but there is something about the authorial voice which dupes me like the most naïve of tyros every time. I always believe that the author is in full command of everything at once, despite the fact that I know full well from experience that all long form written work is assembled piecemeal – a process which the stately linear progression of a finished book does much to disguise.
Since the publication of Middlemarch, debate has raged about whether the Casaubon of the book was modeled on Mark Pattison, the Rector of Lincoln College, whose chief production was his biography Isaac Casaubon. Pattison’s biography of Casaubon paints the picture of a morose and tortured scholar who wanted nothing more than to be left alone with his books:
But over and above Casaubon’s constitutional fretfulness, we must make allowance for the irritability engendered by a life of hard reading against time. Casaubon thought every moment lost in which he was not acquiring knowledge. He resented intrusion as a cruel injury. To take up his time was to rob him of his only property. Casaubon’s imagination was impressed in a painful degree with the truth of the dictum ‘ars longa, vita brevis.’ [Isaac Casaubon, pp.28-29]
Casaubon was in many ways the perfect subject for Pattison, given his own approach to reading and study. Pattison’s Memoirs abound in the type of reflections observed in Casaubon’s diary about the need for systematic reading, and the race against death to master it all. One anecdote about Pattison reveals that he scared a young scholar away from a chosen project by revealing his own method of work:
He suggested that I should edit Selden’s Table Talk. The preparation was to be, first to get the contents practically by heart, then to read the whole printed literature of Selden’s day, and of the generation before him. In twenty years he promised me that I should be prepared for the work. He put the thing before me in so unattractive a way that I never did it or anything else worth doing. I consider the ruin of my misspent life very largely due to that conversation. [Tollemarche, Recollections of Pattison]
Surely, dear readers, any of you who write can feel a certain inner Pattisonian voice making the same claim against your starting to write today: first you must read more! I have countless little essays and other written projects which I would love to pen, but alas, that hateful little voice springs forth and says, “Stay! You have not read enough!”
This same impulse seems to underlie the projects of systematic reading which, if Johnson and Gibbon may be taken as exemplars of their age, were so fashionable in the 18th century. Each of them, at least once in their lives, drew up programs of systematic chronological reading of ancient authors. Gibbon had far more success with this (as his Decline and Fall shows), but although Johnson would joke about his aversion to reading books all the way through, it does appear to have caused him some distress that he was unable to follow through on his plans to read systematically for intellectual gain. Occasionally I will feel like drafting an essay on ancient philosophy, but then (and here comes Pattison), I feel that I must start by reading all of the fragments of Presocratic philosophers, then read all of Plato, then all of Aristotle, and proceed thus through Plotinus. This is of course such an appalling prospect that the project has never gotten off the ground.
This kind of rabid study-oriented bibliomania seems to have affected people in antiquity, too. Who can forget how Pliny the Elder felt compelled to read against the clock like Casaubon:
Once he returned home, he gave the rest of his time up to study. Often, after eating (which, in the ancient way, was always light and sparing) he would lie in the summer sun if he had the leisure, and read a book which he annotated and excerpted from. He never read anything without at least making some notes: he was in the habit of saying that no book was so bad that it was not useful in at least some way. After the sun, he would wash in cold water, then eat and sleep a little bit; soon, as if it were a new day already, he would study again until dinnertime. While eating dinner, he would read and take notes in a cursory fashion. I remember that he was once reading out loud, and was asked by one of his friends to repeat what he had just recited; to this man, my uncle said, ‘Surely, you understood the meaning?’ When the friend said that he had, my uncle responded, ‘Why then did you ask me to repeat it? I have lost the time for reading ten more verses because of your interruption.’ Such was his parsimony of his time. [Pliny the Younger, Letters 3.5]
When I was younger, reading was just a simple pleasure. I remember devouring the Goosebumps books in 2nd grade with such ungentlemanly haste that the excitement of a Saturday morning purchase at the bookstore quickly turned into a bored perception of the emptiness of life by Saturday night. Back then, I appreciated each book as a clear end in itself – reading them gave me a kind of uncomplicated joy. When I was about 15, I began reading “serious” books: philosophy, science, and capital L Literature. In those early days, it was still an uncomplicated process, but something happened after I went to college. If nothing else, college teaches you how little you know. Every fresh accession of knowledge comes with the realization that there are vast frontiers of untrodden territory, each of which would take you a lifetime to master. It is in college, too, that you really begin to pay attention to bibliography, and learn that the process of reading is exponentially expansive. Every time I read a really good book, I find that it suggests at least five others to my mind, and though it is a good problem to have, books can be purchased far faster than they can be read.
But the most insidious part about college is the way in which reading gets reframed as a kind of professional and moral obligation. When I was twenty, a professor referenced John Updike, and when I was naïve enough to confess that I had not read any of his books, I was asked, “What do they even teach you in school now?” Twelve years later, I still haven’t read any Updike, but I do feel a sense of dread that I will find myself in a conversation which hinges upon some piece of important or ‘canonical’ reading, and be brought up short as a fraud or an intellectual poser. This has given to my reading a sense of frenzied, greedy acquisitiveness. To be sure, I still love the act of reading, and if I had my way, I would devote a solid ten hours a day to it. But it is no longer a simple, entirely unadulterated pleasure. When I read, I read with a kind of vain and pretentious instrumentality in the back of my mind. The literary canon, as a concept, can be weaponized as an instrument of exclusion, but in an even more trivial way, it ruins reading by turning it into another one of our many dreary extra-professional chores, like exercise. Sure, I enjoy activity, but I only exercise every day because I know that I’m supposed to.
Over the past few years, I have begun to keep track of what I have read through the course of each year by placing every finished book onto a separate “completed” bookshelf. Some years are better than others, but I have been averaging about 100 books a year. Compared to the prodigious rate at which some people read, this may not be impressive; compared to my aspirations for reading when I buy five books on Friday night and dream that I could finish them all by Sunday, it falls far short. And yet, even at the rate of 100 a year, I will look at the shelf and realize that I don’t even remember reading some of the books on there.
Maybe this is sheer careless reading or inattentiveness, but maybe it is true of life more generally. Some reading has stayed with me through years, but I have forgotten the great bulk of everything I have ever read. It is a sad reflection, made sadder when I realize that the same is true of my life more generally. Most of my experiences and feelings have also slipped away from my memory, but at least I can go back and re-read a book – those parts of my life are lost forever.
Reading is a way of accessing a kind of permanent collective memory available to everyone. Ancient authors were conscious of achieving a kind of immortality through their written works, which would be transmitted through ages long after physical monuments had decayed. Reading can help us to cope with and even defy mortality by expanding our temporal horizons. While it has been complicated by a kind of deontological creep which ruins everything you enjoyed in childhood, reading remains my favorite activity, and one which I wish that I could spend my whole life on. And yet, if I knew that I would die tomorrow, I would not spend a second of today reading. Most likely, I would go on a frenzied quest for various sorts of sensual pleasure, which I suspect would be less enjoyable with the prospect of death looming so near. There is a curious paradox in wanting to spend one’s life on an activity which would suddenly seem so pointless at the very end of that life, when carpe librum becomes carpe diem with all of its pressing force. Such sad reflections can only drive me to one place: back to my books.
John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent:
“Let us consider, too, how differently young and old are affected by the words of some classic author, such as Homer or Horace. Passages, which to a boy are but rhetorical common-places, neither better nor worse than a hundred others which any clever writer might supply, which he gets by heart and thinks very fine, and imitates, as he thinks, successfully, in his own flowing versification, at length come home to him, when long years have passed, and he has had experience of life, and pierce him, as if he had never before known them, with their sad earnestness and vivid exactness. Then he comes to understand how it is that lines, the birth of some chance morning or evening at an Ionian festival, or among the Sabine hills, have lasted generation after generation, for thousands of years, with a power over the mind, and a charm, which the current literature of his own day, with all its obvious advantages, is utterly unable to rival.”
The Spartans kept themselves wholly ignorant of the arts, for they cared about exercise and arms. If they ever needed something derived from the Muses, either because they were sick or ailing in the mind or suffering some other public problem, they would send for foreigners – either doctors, or exorcists in accordance with an oracle. They sent for Terpander, and Thales, and Tyrtaeus, and Nymphaeus of Cydonia, and Alcman. Thucydides agrees that they had no enthusiasm for education in the part of his book where he talks about Brasidas, and says that he was unable to speak, just like a Spartan.