Sep 272003

Don’t you hate it when people tell you to read something, when what you really need is less to read, not more? This blog, as ever, is at your service.

First stop reading the newspaper. My grievances against Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes are many and serious, but I have always admired his steadfast refusal to read the paper. If yesterday’s paper is good for nothing but wrapping fish, what does this say about what you’ve retained from yesterday’s paper? Besides, the news is depressing.

I know people who have read five times as many introductions to works of classic literature as works of classic literature. Don’t be one of them. Forewords and afterwords are to be treated like dessert: read, if at all, after the book, never before, lest you read through the eyes of Professor So-and-So instead of your own. Professor So-and-So tends to natter pointlessly anyway.

Biographies are the scandal sheets of the literate. Great geniuses have the shortest biographies, said Emerson, incorrectly. Great geniuses now have 800-page doorstops memorializing what they ate for breakfast. If you are interested in a novelist, read the novels; in a jurist, the opinions; in a philosopher, the philosophy; in a painter, look at the pictures. Biography is gossip. Worse, it is disingenuous gossip, which you can read in the guise of acquiring an education. Kelly Jane Torrance, among others, beat me to pointing this out; bully for her.

As I grow older I find more wisdom in Ezra Pound’s stricture that the best reading program is to know a dozen good books extremely well. (Not that ol’ Ez followed his own advice.) If your experience is anything like mine you will reliably forget most of any good book the first couple of times you read it, and misunderstand the rest. Then when you return to it you will be astonished at what an idiot you were. Which is an education in itself.

You can cut down on blogs substantially. Female bloggers, for instance. Not all of them, of course: I read several, ranging from the marvelously surly Andrea Harris to the effervescent Sasha Castel to the brilliant Megan McArdle. They have one thing in common: to my knowledge, they are childless. Mother bloggers inevitably start writing about how the school bully is picking on little Eustace or how little Tiffany has been punished for posting nastiness in someone else’s comments section and it was really her who wrote it, not me, no matter what you think, and how dare you call social services on me, and you must be deranged to imagine that I would do something like that. Follow the links if you must. The point is, you need not.

The biggest spread on Wall Street is reputed to be between your current job and your next one. The biggest spread in the universe, mothers, is between your own and everyone else’s interest in the doings of your precious darling. As for the Father of all Mother Bloggers, am I the only one who skips the Gnat parts?

Finally, stop reading the ingredients on the cereal package. Yes, you. If you’ve reached ascorbic acid and trisodium phosphate you’ve gone much, much too far.

(Update: George Wallace dubs excessive child-blogging Lilexia. I like it. Rick Coencas co-sponsors Lilexia. It’s a meme! It’s a viral meme! Brian Micklethwait comments.)

  25 Responses to “What Not to Read”

  1. While people (myself included) who blog about their children overestimate the interest others will have, I think you underestimate the interest parents have in the children of others. There are opportunities to commiserate, and opportunities to feel superior. These are not to be missed.

  2. Eddie: You rarely blog about your children, thank God. My theory is that parents listen to other parents go on about their children mostly because they know it will force the other parents to listen to them in turn. Being childless I am an authority on the subject.

  3. Actually, I genuinely enjoy hearing about Gnat. I certainly have no expectation that Gnat’s daddy is ever going to read about my kids.

    Probably I write a bit more about my kids than others will find interesting–but who says I’m writing for them?

  4. Simply noting the nature and quality of the typical biography(about which I completely agree) does not justify an attack on the entire genre. One could do precisely the same with poetry, to take but one example.

  5. Oh dear, does this apply to dog blogs as well?

  6. Will: Parents listen to other parents talk about their children in hopes of a reciprocal audience. Writing about one’s children is of course a different matter.

    Jim: Not exactly. Biography by its nature deals in trivia. The real biography of any great man is his work.

    Greg: My favorite poetry critic, Yvor Winters, bred Airedales (it was he who said a good Airedale should have a head like a brick), and always insisted that it was a minor art. There is something fascinating about trying to match a living creature to a Platonic standard. I’d rather read about your champion Borzoi Lacey than Gnat any time.

  7. I could not disagree more: more typically, the "trivia" is the words a writer scribbles. The point of thought is the improvement of real life. The point of life is not to write pretty poems and aphorisms. Life on earth is the ultimate value, and writing (at best) only a means to that end. If a writer lacks integrity, that is important. If a writer lives up to his ideas, that is important, too. In either case, it has a direct bearing on the value of those ideas, or the writer–or both.

    Writing is the footnote to life, not vice versa.

  8. A good writer could make even chattering on about their kids interesting. Assuming one’s audience is the Public At Large, that’s difficult, but doable. Easier if your intended audience is one’s mother. Harder (much harder) if it’s Aaron.

    I’ll be a dad in a couple months and I don’t plan on blogging much about it. But at least once or twice I will, and I’ll make it so good that Aaron will have to admit that he likes it. Just to prove him wrong.

    I suggested to my wife that I start a second blog exclusively about the baby (intended audience: family and close friends; if people like Aaron come by it’s their own damn fault). I thought it was a pretty good idea, but her look said quite clearly: "I tolerate it in you, but you are NOT getting our child involved in this blogging nonsense." Ah well. Give it time.

  9. Some possible counterexamples to your remarks on biographies:

    Wittgensteins Poker, by John Edmonds. A short double biography of Wittgenstein and Karl Popper built around a famous and much-disputed argument between them. I found the biographical details (although there is no mention of what either man ate for breakfast) enriched my understanding of both mens philosophy. I now find Poppers work even more appealing, and I have lowered my already low opinion of the later (Oh, doing philosophy is so hard) Wittgenstein.

    Lee the Soldier, edited by Gary W. Gallagher. A huge collection of essays about Lees military abilities. Essential for military history buffs. Although one might argue that this is history rather than biography, I found that some of the more personal stuff, particularly the piece by Jubal Early, had a direct bearing on Lees leadership.

    A Mathematicians Apology, by G. H. Hardy. A classic account of how Hardy viewed mathematics and how he became a mathematician. Insights into mathematics that I could have never gained by reading Hardys work in analytic number theory, even supposing I could have understood it. Be sure to get an edition that includes the forward by C.P. Snow, which gives a valuable perspective on Hardys life (and is also a counterexample to your advice not to read forwards.)

  10. I forgot about Hardy’s little book, which I quite like, although his Course in Pure Mathematics is quite comprehensible with not very much background. Autobiographies are often an exception to my rule. Your examples are short. Short biographies are usually the ones worth reading insofar as biographies are worth reading at all. The monograph, unfortunately, is nearly extinct.

    However, I strongly recommend reading forwards, except for murder mysteries, which should always be read backwards, to save time.

  11. Aaron’s Dad:

    While I too prefer Popper to Wittgenstein, early or late, Wittgenstein has one chief advantage over Popper — he has no coterie of acolytes acting in his name. In fact, to my knowledge, no one says, "I’m Wittgensteinian."

    On the other hand, Popper has spawned that demon seed Soros. Give a man a little philosophy and a lot of money and he can do endless damage.

  12. Bill,

    There may be more Popperians than Wittgensteinians, but I’ll bet Wittgenstein is the more often quoted. In fact, "Of that about which nothing can be said, let us remain silent." is my candidate for the most quoted, and most irritating, chestnut of western philosophy (and, alas, it is from "Tractatus", early Wittgenstein.)

  13. Aaron’s Dad:

    My favorite phrase from Wittgenstein is "The world is made of facts, and not of things,"
    also from the "Tractatus". I had thought Dr. Johnson, years before, had disproved such thought by kicking a rock and asserting, "This is my refutation of that."

  14. Call me an idiot, but I never skip passages about Gnat. But that’s because Lileks is Lileks.

    Now, if you wrote about your kid …

  15. It should be noted that there are some books of classic literature where the forward by the esteemed Professor So-and-So is actually part of the book.

    As for biography, I beg to differ; great artists are not always great men (indeed, they very often are not). Listening to Don Quixote or Four Last Songs brings us no closer to understanding Richard Strauss the man; only biography can tell us that most of his tone poems were actually about himself (including, notoriously, Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben, which tells us that Strauss was, in addition to being a great composer, a raving egomaniac).

  16. Dr. Johnson’s classic refutation of Hume (and Wittgenstein) is not the full answer, yet, but more than adequate for Hume … hey, maybe someone should write a BIOGRAPHY of the dude? Whatdaya think?! Nah, who’d read it?

  17. Paul: Professor Humbert merits a special exemption; forewords by the narrator are not what I had in mind.

    Strauss’s music is beautiful, while Strauss, personally, was pretty unsavory. The question is, how is reading about Strauss, personally, any different from reading the gossip columns? How does it help us to appreciate Four Last Songs to know that he wrote them about himself?

  18. Jim: Boswell is cheating. Life of Johnson is not really a biography in the modern sense; it is a record of Johnson’s brilliant table talk.

  19. While it’s obvious from reading the texts that Four Last Songs is a meditation on death, one would not know that it was the eighty-something Strauss’ final major work as the composer himself faced the gloaming of his life; nor would they know that it was written in the shadow of World War II — two things that I believe make a significant difference in understanding the songs. Also, he quotes his own Tod Und Verklarung (Death and Transfiguration, for those of us who don’t speak German) in one of the songs, making the connection musically explicit — but, unless one was familiar with the earlier work, this is something that would go unnoticed.

  20. Must admit I usually enjoy the Gnat bites. Must also admit I sometimes tell people they ought to read a particular article. At least I always give a reason. I don’t like the Instapundit buried-nugget approach to linkage.

  21. Is there such a thing as the anti-biography? For example, the biography of William James Sidis. It is kind of similar to the Hall of Fames career of Doc Gooden.

  22. No, we ought not to read so many blogs. And we ought not to read so many forewords and afterwords. We ought not to read musings from so many parents who tell us we gotta see the BABY! But we do, God help us.

    In my case, I like the "baby bloggers," if only because my social environment (Gay male, college town) tends not to have children in it. When you go for days on end without so much as seeing a kid, you really feel like you’re missing out on something. And you are.

    Maybe that’s why the little tykes who show up at Gay Pride picnics — both of them — are treated more carefully than fine porcelain, and given far more attention and respect than they’re due. But, you know, until we can legally choose the whole spouse-and-kids route, it’s nice at least to read about other people’s disgusting rugrats once in a while.

  23. Effervescent! WOO! Thanks, Aaron.

    For a different take on childblogging that you might actually enjoy, check out House Husband Diaries. Matt is a great writer who occasionally doodles for my site too.

    And right now I’m reading Noel Fitch’s biography of Julia Child. Did you know she was in the OSS? The mind wobbles…

  24. Paul: Familiarity with the rest of an artist’s work is one thing, familiarity with his life another. I deny that it contributes anything to the appreciation of Vier Letzte Lieder to know when and under what circumstances it was composed.

    Bill: The story of Sidis is an anti-life. His biography would still be a biography.

    Tim: I suppose even spoiled bawling filthy snot-nosed novelty has its charm.

    Sasha: All the other adjectives were taken.

  25. "As for the Father of all Mother Bloggers, am I the only one who skips the Gnat parts?"

    *ROFL* Nope, you are not the only one. ;]

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