How To Read a Book: An Advanced Theory

For that pompous sounding title I decline to offer abject explanations.

I’ve talked before about my trail of delight theory – I believe that truth and beauty and goodness have a taste, mentally speaking, and that when you read for delight you learn that taste and it leads you from one book to the next. The result is not only that after a while you have read a number of good books, but also that you’ve cultivated a greater critical facility, love for truth, reading skills, and so on.

Partly what I mean by this is that people shouldn’t read books for the purpose of having read important books – or great books – or timely books – or critically acclaimed books – or popular books… I think it’s too easy to read the wrong books when you read in order to read the right books. Read what delights you. The best reason to do so is simply freedom.

There are bookish pleasures galore available to people who read freely, and not according to artificial constraints. However, I will have it understood that my idea of freedom does not involve reading without discrimination. I assume that freedom is a dignity that is part of human nature and therefore ennobles us. The only worthy exercise of freedom is to choose what is good. In other words, if you are free to choose and you choose something impoverished of virtues when you could read something rich in virtues, that’s pathetic, man.

Actually this post is not so much the exposition of a theory as the celebration of the fact that I picked up a few rather fine, highly enjoyable books for 20 cents each at a thrift store two days ago. Not a second-hand book store but a thrift store. Apparently someone had dropped off a load of science fiction (I love pulp) and mystery books, among which I found an aged and venerable Dorothy L. Sayers volume – one that does not, in fact, feature Lord Peter Whimsey, and which I had not yet read! Treasure!

What are the delights of Sayers?

Her temperament strikes me as familiar -it is the truth-loving temperament. But with her finely mettled mind she could never have become a curmudgeon. Science, philosophy, religion, and a feminine humanism all her own – mixed with careful detection methodology and psychological studies thoroughly sympathetic but far more ruthlessly moral than Agatha Christie’s, all characterize her fascinating mystery novels.

Now, I’m not sure what Sayers really thought about the death penalty. I’ve often thought that Agatha Christie’s penchant for allowing her murders and murderesses to off themselves rather than face the horrors of the public justice system may have had something to do with her feelings about the death penalty. On the other hand, she may simply have imagined Hercule Poroit as having such feelings, since he is known for his fastidiousness. Sayers allows her murderer, an artist in love with his stodgy victim’s gorgeous wife, to go to the gallows. There is a dilemma about whether this is going to happen, and that’s half the suspense of the book. It’s entirely up to the man’s best friend whether to pursue the matter and turn him in. The fact that the best friend is thoughtful and introspective to a fault – or so some of the other characters believe – in the end allows him to overcome his school-friend loyalty for the supposedly greater virtue of justice.

Of the many philosophic questions in The Documents In The Case, Sayers discusses (through her characters’ dialogue) questions about the origins of life – questions that appear unrelated to this issue of crime detection. That’s the appearance merely, though. The discussions, scientific and otherwise, of the origins of life (with which the business-like son of the victim is so disgusted) turn out to be so germane to the issue that they decide the murderer’s fate. Not only do the conclusions presented by the scientists and clergyman that populate the book influence the best friend’s decision, but the physical evidence that decides the guilt of the murderer hinges on the chemical difference between organic and inorganic poisons – that is, between the processes of living matter and the concoction of the exact same poison by a combination of dead matter.

As always, the real delight of Sayers is intelligence. And I don’t think I mean by that, IQ. Or at least, I mean active contemplative intelligence instead of potential general intelligence. Sayers’ writing alone has suggested to me that there may be such a thing as moral intelligence and it does not suggest this by facile proofs. I am not in favor of the death penalty, and I am not sure that Sayers, one of those Episcopalian Catholics, was, either. But maybe she was. Either way, I think her ideas are worth consideration in this question. Apparently she believed that even, or especially, a highly sensitive soul could find the death of a character who would conventionally be presented as unexciting and unsympathetic (whom she takes pains to make reader appreciate for his uniqueness and virtues – and faults, too – more than any of his fellow characters, do) heinous enough to turn him in to the authorities. Is Sayers suggesting that if life is indeed that indefinable miracle which science and philosophy both gaze at open mouthed, and if, especially, there is the slightest reason to suspect that it was bestowed as a gift by God, then there can be no excuse for allowing the theft of life to go unremarked, undetested, ungrieved, and, perhaps, unpunished? Is she emphasizing the profound, penetrating, colossal and saturating difference between life and non-life, saying that no other difference is like unto this?

One thing she is explicitly and certainly doing is examining a literary convention in which we sympathize with the murderers because they are doing it for love. Sayers gives the murderers their due – allows them to speak and present their viewpoint. It’s possible to sympathize with the wife’s frustration – she is temperamentally unsuitable for her husband and this results in a certain emotional starvation. I can’t really despise her the way some of the more righteous characters in the book do because it’s becoming harder and harder not to be defective in some way or another. On the other hand, you eventually come to see that her emotional self-indulgence is so selfish that she is actually the opposite of the great lover she imagines herself to be. Love, glorious love, she feels, excuses anything. Her husband is standing in the way of love – so presumably she and her lover are justified in wanting him dead. Even God would excuse it – it’s so beautiful.

Sayers’ disdain for said viewpoint is palpable. What is love, she seems to ask, that is capable of despising life? Isn’t love founded on life? Jonathan Edwards, of course, thought so when he defined love as the consent of being to being.

I could go on but I’ll stop at this layer.

Sayers can be construed as an important writer but I don’t believe everyone can benefit equally from her books. Meanwhile, after finishing Documents, I started in on another twenty-cent find, The Cat Who Came for Christmas (1987.) I’m a fan of Lillian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who mystery series (primarily because I fancy Qwill as a serious contender for my favorite fantasy alter ego) but this is not one of them. It’s a witty first-person non-fiction cat-owner memoir. It’s delightful and although it doesn’t give rise to reflections on the unplumbed mysteries of life, it palpably, intelligently, and feelingly enjoys life, from the standpoint of a specific subjective experience. That’s worth something to me. Definitely more than twenty cents, which is why I’m gloating a bit.

Comment rules: name and email required; website not required. No more than 2 links, please. Markdown is enabled. Enclose with 1 asterisk for italics, or 2 asterisks for bold.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.