“You stand to lose nothing; what you may gain are new associative chains.”
“The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not,” Kurt Vonnegut famously proclaimed. But how is one to develop that discerning taste, especially in determining what is worth reading and what is not?
On May 18, 1988, several months after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature and exactly seven months before he delivered the greatest commencement address of all time, the prolific poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky gave the opening keynote at Turin’s very first book fair. His talk, titled “How to Read a Book” and included in the 1997 anthology On Grief and Reason: Essays (public library), is a beautiful and timeless meditation on the value — the purpose, the challenge, the transcendent joy — of the written word. Although it was written with books in mind, it applies just as brilliantly to the question of what is worth engaging in, in any medium — a question all the more pressing amidst our era’s constant influx of information of increasingly questionable quality, delivered with increasingly uncompromising ploys for our attention.
On the whole, infinity is a fairly palpable aspect of this business of publishing, if only because it extends a dead author’s existence beyond the limits he envisioned, or provides a living author with a future he cannot measure. In other words, this business deals with the future which we all prefer to regard as unending.
On the whole, books are indeed less finite than ourselves. Even the worst among them outlast their authors — mainly because they occupy a smaller amount of physical space than those who penned them. Often they sit on the shelves absorbing dust long after the writer himself has turned into a handful of dust. Yet even this form of the future is better than the memory of a few surviving relatives or friends on which one cannot rely, and often it is precisely the appetite for this posthumous dimension which sets one’s pen in motion.
So as we toss and turn these rectangular objects in our hands — those in octavo, in quarto, in duodecimo, etc., etc. — we won’t be terribly amiss if we surmise that we fondle in our hands, as it were, the actual or potential urns with someone’s rustling ashes.
He then moves on to the spectrum of creative merit in readable material and the value of the books that Susan Sontag didn’t consider part of literature in honing a writer’s taste:
In order to write a good book, a writer must read a great deal of trash — otherwise, he won’t be able to develop the necessary criteria. That’s what may constitute bad literature’s best defense at the Last Judgment. . . .
But despite this potential value of bad books, Brodsky argues that for time-economy reasons, we need a system of separating the good from the bad and points, “some compass in the ocean of available literature.” The formal role of that compass in society is played by the reviewer and literary critic, Brodsky argues, but that is a compass whose needle “oscillates wildly.” He considers the problems with criticism:
The trouble with a reviewer is (minimum) threefold: (A) he can be a hack, and as ignorant as ourselves, (B) he can have strong predilections for a certain kind of writing, or simply be on the take with the publishing industry, and (C) if he is a writer of talent, he will turn his review-writing into an independent art form — Jorge Luis Borges is a case in point — and you may end up by reading reviews rather than the books themselves.
(To that, we might begrudgingly add (D) “he” is, indeed, primarily male — a statistic that bespeaks a whole other set of problems in literature.)
Brodsky continues by exploring the alternative to the flawed system of relying on professional reviewers — or “tastemakers,” as it were — presaging the equally questionable era of Amazon reviews and crowdsourced opinion-homogenization:
In any case, you find yourselves adrift in the ocean, with pages and pages rustling in every direction, clinging to a raft of whose ability to stay afloat you are not so sure. The alternative therefore would be to develop your own taste, to build your own compass, to familiarize yourself, as it were, with particular stars and constellations — dim or bright but always remote. This, however, takes a hell of a lot of time, and you may easily find yourself old and gray, heading for the exit with a lousy volume under your arm. Another alternative — or perhaps just a part of the same — is to rely on hearsay; a friend’s advice, a reference caught in a text that you happen to like. Although not institutionalized in any fashion (which wouldn’t be such a bad idea), this kind of procedure is familiar to all of us from a tender age. Yet this too proves to be poor insurance, for the ocean of available literature swells and widens constantly.
So what is one to do amidst this grim set of options? Brodsky sees only one viable way to cultivate that compass — to learn what Wordsworth believed to be “the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge” and to develop what Edward Hirsch so memorably called “a mind so miraculously attuned and illuminated that it can form words, by a chain of more-than coincidences, into a living entity,” that special thing that, as James Dickey put it, “makes possible the deepest kind of personal possession of the world.” Brodsky writes:
The way to develop good taste in literature is to read poetry. If you think that I am speaking out of professional partisanship, that I am trying to advance my own guild interests, you are badly mistaken. For, being the supreme form of human locution, poetry is not only the most concise, the most condensed way of conveying the human experience; it also offers the highest possible standards for any linguistic operation — especially one on paper.
The more one reads poetry, the less tolerant one becomes of any sort of verbosity, be that in political or philosophical discourse, be that in history, social studies or the art of fiction. Good style in prose is always hostage to the precision, speed and laconic intensity of poetic diction. A child of epitaph and epigram, conceived indeed as a short cut to any conceivable subject matter, poetry to prose is a great disciplinarian. It teaches the latter not only the value of each word but also the mercurial mental patterns of the species, alternatives to linear composition, the knack of omitting the self-evident, emphasis on detail, the technique of anticlimax. Above all, poetry develops in prose that appetite for metaphysics that distinguishes a work of art from mere belles-lettres. It must be admitted, however, that in this particular regard, prose has proven to be a rather lazy pupil.
Noting that all you need to do is “arm yourselves for a couple of months with the works of poets in your mother tongue, preferably from the first half of [the twentieth] century, he goes on to offer specific reading recommendations for poetry in some of the major world languages:
If your mother tongue is English, I may recommend to you Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop. If the language is German, Rainer Maria Rilke, Georg Trakl, Peter Huchel, Ingeborg Bachmann and Gottfried Benn. If it is Spanish, Antonio Machado, Federico Garcia Lorca, Luis Cernuda, Rafael Alberti, Juan Ramon Jimenez and Octavio Paz will do. If the language is Polish — or if you know Polish (which would be to your great advantage, because the most extraordinary poetry of this century is written in that language) — I’d like to mention to you the names of Leopold Staff, Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert and Wieslawa Szymborska. If it is French, then of course Apollinaire, Jules Supervielle, Pierre Reverdy, Blaise Cendrars, Max Jacob, Francis Jammes, Andre Frenaud some of Eluard, a bit of Aragon, Victor Segalen, and Henri Michaux. If it is Greek, then you should read Constantine Cavafy, George Seferis, Yannis Ritsos. If it is Dutch, then your must is Martinus Nijhoff, particularly his stunning “Awater.” If it is Portuguese, you should try Fernando Pessoa and perhaps Carlos Drummond de Andrade. If the language is Swedish, read Gunnar Ekelof, Harry Martinson, Werner Aspenstrom, Tomas Transtromer. If it is Russian, it should be, to say the least, Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, Vladislav Khodasevich, Viktor Khlebnikov, Nikolai Kluyev, Nikolai Zabolotsky. If it is Italian, I don’t presume to submit any name to this audience, and if I still mention Quasimodo, Saba, Ungaretti and Montale, it is simply because I have long wanted to acknowledge my personal, private gratitude and debt to these four great poets whose lines influenced my own life rather crucially, and I am glad to do so while standing on Italian soil.
One of the chief benefits of cultivating such taste, Brodsky suggests, is the confidence of knowing which books are not worth reading, which in turn makes the choice of the worthy all the more meaningful. (“Non-reading, Pierre Bayard wrote in his excellent How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, “is not just the absence of reading. It is a genuine activity, one that consists of adopting a stance in relation to the immense tide of books that protects you from drowning. On that basis, it deserves to be defended and even taught.”) Brodsky adds:
If after going through the works of any of these, you would drop a book of prose picked from the shelf, it won’t be your fault. If you’d continue to read it, that will be to the author’s credit; that will mean that this author has indeed something to add to the truth about our existence as it was known to these few poets just mentioned; that would prove at least that this author is not redundant, that his language has an independent energy or grace. Or else, that would mean that reading is your incurable addiction. As addictions go, this is not the worst one.
What makes poetry so exceptional at honing literary taste, Brodsky argues, is how little room for hackery it leaves:
Poetry, as Montale once put it, is an incurably semantic art, and the chances for charlatanism in it are extremely low. By the third line a reader will know what sort of thing he holds in his left hand, for poetry makes sense fast and the quality of language in it makes itself felt immediately.
Above all, however, poetry promises to do for the mind what Vannevar Bush presaged the internet would — create a network of associative trails that link up ideas, which is, of course, the foundation of creativity. Brodsky concludes with a beautiful sentiment:
Like the proverbial proletariat, you stand to lose nothing; what you may gain are new associative chains.
On Grief and Reason is a soul-stimulating read in its entirety. Sample it further with Brodsky on how to play the game of life, then see Virginia Woolf on how to read a book, Edward Hirsch on how to read a poem, and James Dickey on how to enjoy poetry.