On Reading the Unreadable (or Persisting)

Michael Greenberg writes of Jorge Luis Borges:

He advises his students to leave a book if it bores them: “that book was not written for you,” no matter its reputation or fame.

Good advice, but not easily followed.

Borges’ advice isn’t easy to follow because the decision to continue reading is just another instance of that most insuperable of dilemmas: Should I stay or should I go? Should I press on to the summit, risking life and limb, or should I turn back, foregoing glory and the chance to prove myself against the unforgiving elements? I was warned, after all, that I would experience many, many, moments of utter exhaustion, that I would have to dig deep into reserves that I didn’t know existed. Should I persist in this floundering relationship and attempt to rescue it from the doldrums in which it finds itself, thus investigating the depths of my emotional and romantic commitment, or should I cut my losses and run, seeking a better partner elsewhere? The romantic was always supposed to be our sternest test, wasn’t it?

The reading of a book poses this question in particularly vexed form. We have been urged to show a little backbone in our intellectual endeavors; we have been warned pleasures of the mind are not so easily earned; we accuse ourselves, relentlessly, of indolence in matters of edification. We are convinced we are distracted and flighty, flitting from one easily earned pleasure to the next; we are well aware the classics are often ‘difficult’ and require ‘sustained attention’. If a book ‘bores’ us, surely it is our fault, not the author’s, and we should press on regardless, trusting the difficulty journey ahead will bring its own rewards soon enough. Glory, we well know, comes only to those who persist; those who take the first exit on the highway to greatness are destined to only enjoy minor pleasures. So, this boredom that afflicts us, surely it is a reflection of our intellectual infirmity, an entirely ersatz disease. Can its reports really be trusted?

Matters, of course, are made worse in this day and age, as we suffer the ever-growing deluge of the written word, online and offline. We learn every day, with growing dismay, of the decay of the reading mind, the growth of the 140-character missive. Boredom by book seems like an exceedingly common disease, possibly even over-diagnosed.

If we could only trust our own inclinations, our own expressed desires, Borges’ advice would be far more tractable. But we do not. They have gotten us into trouble many times in the past; we know they will continue to torment us so in the future.

Fears of premature abandonment aren’t going away any time soon.

Note: In the past year, I have abandoned classics by Stendhal and Balzac; my guilt lasted for several days, and it was not assuaged when, on reporting these surrenders to a friend, he responded, “Really? I’m surprised. Those are great reads!” Borges can at least rest content his writing will never bore me.

Do Sancho Panzas Trump Don Quixotes?

In Stendhal‘s The Charterhouse of Parma, the Conte says to ‘our hero’ Fabrizio:

A half brainless individual, but one who keeps his eyes open and day in day out acts with prudence, will often enjoy the pleasure of triumphing over men of imagination. It was by a foolish error of imagination that Napoleon was led to surrender to the prudent John Bull instead of seeking to escape to America. John Bull, in his counting-house, had a good laugh over that letter of his in which he quotes Themistocles. In all ages, the base Sancho Panzas will, in the long run, triumph over the sublimely noble Don Quixotes.

The Conte’s opening claim is a familiar one: the practical, the grounded, the concrete, the earthy, trumps the idealistic, the wild and woolly, the speculative; the force of the practical can fill the sails of the sluggish and race them past the bold; the worker ant equipped with a superior work ethic will find greater rewards than a brilliant, but lazy, genius; the giant, like Napoleon, can be brought down by an army of determined and united midgets.  The Conte does not specify the domains to which his remarks apply but the open-ended way in which  he makes them suggests a generality extending across the political, the creative, and the artistic.

Sports fans, of course, are used to these sorts of judgments: the histories of many games are littered with stories of dazzling stars whose flashes of brilliance ensured several glorious moments in the sun, but no extended success, while journeymen weekday performers, persistent to the point of dullness, racked up numerically superior careers and thus dominated the recordbooks. Thus, the endless debates about whether statistics lie, whether the greatness of a sportsman should be judged by a cold table of numbers or by the pleasure brought to viewers. But sports at least offers a temptingly objective standard for comparison because of its statistics. (These have not ended debate however, but rather, sparked an efflorescence of ever more baroque statistics with which to wage these endless battles.)

Matters are perhaps more complicated elsewhere. How are we to assess the truth of the Conte’s remarks in  creative domains such as writing or the arts? Are the rewards for the worker ant to be measured in terms of monetary gains or recognition by peers or posterity? There are no objective statistics here to rely on. Might one dazzling, Supernova-like novella, featuring one display after another of verbal pyrotechnics and piercing insights into the human condition, written by a dissolute Quixote, outweigh an entire corpus of stolid prose written by a persistent Panza? Is the worth or the importance of the artist measured by a body of work–and its corresponding influence in its domain–or by an outstanding production that by virtue of being an outlier skews the scales in its favor? Answers to these questions are not easy for they often bring us into contact with one of the oldest and most intractable of all questions in the arts: What is it that makes a work a classic over and above its persistence and endurance through time?

Note: Excerpt from Penguin edition (1958); translated by Margaret R. B. Shaw