Sep 202006

In a footnote in Martin Amis’s memoir, Experience, he has this to say of the ideal reader:

I am not [Saul Bellow’s] son, of course. What I am is his ideal reader. I am not my father’s ideal reader, however. His ideal reader, funnily enough, is Christopher Hitchens.

There is a theory to infer here, once we discard the prissy Platonism of the word “ideal.” A single ideal reader does not exist any more than a single soulmate. Still, some readers are better than others, and for the best of them the word will serve.

An ideal reader is a kindred spirit, not a doppelgänger. Hitch, the Trotskyite, and Kingsley, the Tory, are savage and bloody-minded in a way that Martin is not. Martin and Saul Bellow, on the other hand, both have a taste for wistful picaresque and a sense that even rotten bastards aren’t rotten all the way through. They treat phonies and frauds sensitively where neither Hitchens nor Kingsley would have the patience. (To see how Kingsley handles such people in his novels, read Hitchens on Mother Teresa or Bill Clinton.) It is no accident that The Adventures of Augie March is Martin’s favorite Bellow novel. Martin’s own best novel, Money, is a sort of picaresque itself: its moneyed yob, John Self, blunders and binges through America.

An ideal reader sometimes vastly surpasses his author — Poe’s ideal reader was Baudelaire. The other way around is impossible; understanding presupposes intelligence.

An ideal reader often writes about his author, but he is too near him, temperamentally, to play the judicious critic. He reads the author as the author would want to be read, not as others would want to read him.

The relationship can be, but is usually not, reciprocal. Edith Wharton’s ideal reader was certainly Henry James, although he had died by the time she wrote her best novel, The Age of Innocence; and Henry James’s ideal reader was very likely Edith Wharton.

Just as an author can have multiple ideal readers, so can a reader be ideal for multiple authors. My girlfriend is Quentin Crisp’s ideal reader; also Doug Kenney’s. You now know her better than her immediate family does.

Who is my ideal reader? I thought of Matt McIntosh, but no: he agrees with me too often, and the literary blather obviously bores him. My ideal reader, in an upset, is Conrad Roth, of the scholarly, whimsical, and criminally underrated Varieties of Unreligious Experience. He is literary but has mathematics as well, sympathetic but critical. (I am too poor a linguist to be Conrad’s ideal reader; he’s on his own.)

Whose ideal reader am I? In the world of actual books, I am of course Yvor Winters’ ideal reader. I have occasionally, unfairly, been regarded as a Winters epigone. (This is a Winters epigone.) Winters was a Thomist and a theist. He made more fuss about ranking poems than I do. His theory of free verse scansion differs entirely from mine. But we are both especially attuned to the conflict of the abstract and the particular, the subject of a large percentage of Winters’ favorite poems and an even larger percentage of his own verse. More to the point, we both regard “poetry-lovers” as the very people from whom poetry urgently needs to be rescued.

In the world of blogs, I am owned by Colby Cosh. This began to dawn on me one day, about the middle of last year, when I was contemplating a post about the great AC/DC — now, as ever, 100% irony-free! — only to discover that Cosh had already written it that morning. Several months later the realization was completed when I found myself linking to a few of his posts about hockey, a game I do not understand. His themes include, but are not limited to, the idiot innumeracy of journalists, bureaucratic idiocy, sportswriting idiocy, and idiocy all around. He is a shrewd literary critic, sometimes at my expense, when he cares to indulge. Our cats also look alike.

Who is your ideal reader? Whose ideal reader are you?

Update: Conrad Roth comments. I couldn’t have been a contender either. Megan McArdle comments. I report with embarrassment that I had to look up L.M. Montgomery.

  13 Responses to “The Ideal Reader”

  1. “we both regard “poetry-lovers” as the very people from whom poetry urgently needs to be rescued.”

    Oh, absolutely. Awful people.

    Ideal reader: Gawain, apparently. (Where is he?)

  2. What makes you think the literary stuff bores me? Granted that it’s not my area of expertise, but if anything you’ve repaired a lot of the damage done to me by public school English classes. I gave up on poetry some time ago, but your posts have encouraged me to give it another chance. I’m really enjoying Cunningham recently.

    I’m not sure I have an ideal reader, though I have a few friends that come close in various ways. If I’m anyone’s ideal reader it’s probably (surprise) Karl Popper — I like to think I can expound on both his best and his worst points more fairly and accurately than just about anyone this side of Jeremy Shearmur or David Miller (yes, better than Rafe). And while I’m certainly no Bruce Caldwell, I think I could almost say the same about Hayek.

    You could also apply this to musicians: whose ideal listener are you? I suppose I’d have to go with Matthew Good, despite the astounding juvenility of the man’s politics.

  3. This could probably be explored quantitatively through a rating or ranking system of favorite writers.

    For example, I was struck by Tom Stoppard’s statement that his three favorite writers are Evelyn Waugh, Vladimir Nabokov, and Thomas Babington Macauley, who would also rank near the top of my list, along with Stoppard himself.

    I certainly don’t think I’m Stoppard’s ideal reader, but I can imagine being Stoppard if only I was smarter, funnier, harder-working, and much more creative. Similarly, the flaw Stoppard is most often criticized for — lack of emotional profundity — I’ve got a much worse case of. So, I recognize Stoppard as kindred.

    In contrast, there are lots of outstanding writers I can’t really imagine being. They do things I can barely comprehend.

  4. To apply this line of thought to bloggers, I could imagine being as good as Colby Cosh is at what Colby does so well … if only I was younger, and smarter, and more perceptive, and had more sleep, and on and on.

    But I have no idea how Michael Blowhard does what he does so well. I feel like a caveman with a stone ax watching a surgeon with a scalpel.

    One way to test this is to notice how often a certain writer brings to your mind the exclamation that “The Origin of Species” inspired in T.H. Huxley: “How stupid of me not to have thought of that!” Huxley was perhaps Darwin’s ideal reader, but he probably wasn’t, say, James Clerk Maxwell’s.

  5. Using Steve’s last comment as a template, Razib Khan is my Cosh — I’d seriously give my left nut to have his energy and productivity, and I’m only starting to pull myself up toward his level of genetics knowledge, but I could see myself working at his level in principle. But Will Wilkinson is my Michael Blowhard: that guy has me picking my jaw up off the floor on a regular basis.

  6. This discussion reminds me of the one in James Gleick’s biography of Richard Feynman about the difference between geniuses and magicians. He quotes a physicist as saying that when you watched Fermi at the blackboard, it was always impressive. But you could at least see how it was done. Some people are just faster than others, the guy said, and you had to realize that in the same way that you were never going to run a four-minute mile, you were never going to be able to do physics as quickly as Enrico Fermi.

    But the next category, populated in physics by the likes of Feynman and Dirac, were the magicians. Even if you slowed them down, you still couldn’t see where their stuff was coming from. It just sort of seemed to appear.

    Ideal readers. . .actually, Colby Cosh isn’t a bad candidate for my site. He has no particular scientific background, as far as I know, but picks stuff up faster than a chicken on a junebug, as they used to say where I grew up.

  7. Ideally . . .

    Aaron Haspel has a lovely piece on the ideal reader. An ideal reader often writes about his author, but he is too near him, temperamentally, to play the judicious critic. He reads the author as the author would want to be read, not as others would want…

  8. “Even if you slowed them down, you still couldn’t see where their stuff was coming from. It just sort of seemed to appear.”


    I first realized this distinction watching the Spassky/Fischer chess matches with Shelby Lyman commenting. The assembled a panel of chess masters barely ever predicted what Fischer would do, whereas, after explication from the masters, even I could regularly predict what Spassky would do.

    If you get a chance to see them, also watch the Casals masterclass series. A perfectly fine musician will play a piece perfectly well, then Casals starts in and it becomes, well, transcendent.

  9. And by the way, Aaron, you’re absolutely right that Money is Martin Amis’s best novel. I remember being struck how much things had fallen off when I read London Fields, and since then it hasn’t been pretty, for reasons I can only guess at.

    So who’s his ideal reader, I wonder? This illustrates one problem with the concept, in the way that some authors change a great deal over their careers. Kingsley Amis’s novels are remarkably consistent in tone, but while I can imagine a rabid fan of Money-era Martin Amis – in fact, I was one – I have trouble picturing such a creature devoted to his later fiction.

  10. “True, bin Laden’s mythical Volk doesn’t bath in the clear icy waters of the Rhine untouched by the filth of the Tiber; but rather they ride horses and slice the wind with their scimitars in service of a soon to be reborn majestic world of caliphs and mullahs. Osama bin Laden sashaying in his flowing robes is not all that different from the obese Herman Goering in reindeer horns plodding around his Karinhall castle with suspenders and alpine shorts.”

    Writing like this is why Victor Davis Hanson owns me.

  11. I am my own ideal reader.

    Anyone interested can give me their email. I’ll mail you the first chapter of one or both of the books I’m writing.

    I am owned by anyone who more consistenly constructs the literary quality that most closely resembles intellectual beauty.

  12. I have to say, and I think I speak for all your readers, ideal and otherwise, that we’d like to see your AC/DC essay, irony or non. It would be interesting to compare and contrast it to the Cosherators’. And, good news be upon us, combined they would probably be the most intelligent words written in, around or about that band in its entire history.

  13. I guess the “who is your ideal reader” question has been answered for me. As to the other question: I am Chuck Klosterman’s ideal reader.

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