Years ago I was a “member” of the Book-of-the-Month Club. In those days, prior to the BOMC becoming a scrupulous proxy of the zeitgeist, you could actually load up on what are usually called “The Classics.” So I did. Trading in my earned dividends, I amassed several of the collected editions of great writers: Michael Grant on the histories of Greece and Rome, Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, John Updike, Henry James, Jane Austen, Stephen Crane, J. R. R. Tolkien, Henry Thoreau, and many others.
Most of these are lush editions carrying the BOMC imprimatur. “Someday I’ll read them,” I thought, “but in the meantime they’ll add a certain panache to my library.”
As the song says, “that rainy day is here.” Actually, it’s been here for quite a while. And, as some of my friends know, I’m working my way through Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” (1847) at the moment. Years ago I read younger sister Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights,” the strange, gothic drama whose characters are more natural forces than human personalities.
In these years of reading classic literature, I’ve developed what scientist-intellectual Leon Kass calls “a prejudice for reading old books slowly.” Slow reading helps move you away from the story towards the spirit of the book. “Story” is usually a mere vehicle for the greater meaning of true art. Our age is impoverished in so many ways, but nowhere so much as in its obsession with mere story. For children, it is true, story is central, but one of the requirements of adulthood is the transcendence of bare narrative in the interests of significance and self-knowledge.
Popular culture is, of course, the purveyor of “bare narrative.” Its stories of reality, circulated endlessly via movie, rock music, political websites, and network news, are the surface understandings that limit the historical awareness and cultural allusions of most people today. It wasn’t always like that. Our ancestors were by and large much better informed in ancient wisdom, and really much smarter, than we are today. They habitually read old books, slowly.
“There are people who seem to have no notion of sketching a character, or observing and describing salient points, either in persons or things,” thought Jane Eyre when she talked with Mrs. Fairfax. “The good lady evidently belonged to this class; my queries puzzled, but did not draw her out. Mr. Rochester was Mr. Rochester in her eyes; a gentleman, a landed proprietor—nothing more: she inquired and searched no further, and evidently wondered at my wish to gain a more definite notion of his identity.”
Our contemporary Pax Liberaliana is a strictly quantitative existence, limited largely to assimilating information and, as Alistair MacIntyre says, “emotivist propositions.” It has little time for books, especially ones such as “Jane Eyre.”