Lafcadio: On Reading (2)

PATRICK LAFCADIO HEARN (KOIZUMI YAKUMO) – The test of a great book is whether we want to read it only once or more than once. Any really great book we want to read the second time even more than we wanted to read it the first time; and every additional time that we read it we find new meanings and new beauties in it. A book that a person of education and good taste does not care to read more than once is very probably not worth much. Some time ago there was a very clever discussion going on regarding the art of the great French novelist, Zola; some people claimed that he possessed absolute genius; others claimed that he had only talent of a very remarkable kind.

The battle of argument brought out some strange extravagances of opinion. But suddenly a very great critic simply put this question: “How many of you have read, or would care to read, one of Zola’s books a second time?”. There was no answer; the fact was settled. Probably no one would read a book by Zola more than once; and this is proof positive that there is no great genius in them, and no great mastery of the highest form of feehng. Shallow or false any book must be, that, although bought by a hundred thousand readers, is never read more than once. But we can not consider the judgment of a single individual infallible. The opinion that makes a book great must be the opinion of many. For even the greatest critics are apt to
have certain dulnesses, certain Inappreciatlons.

Carlyle, for example, could not endure Browning; Byron could not endure some of the greatest of English poets. A man must be many-sided to utter a trustworthy estimate of many books. We may doubt the judgment of the single critic at times. But there is no doubt possible in regard to the judgment of generations. Even If we cannot at once perceive anything good in a book which has been admired and praised for hundreds of years, we may be sure that by trying, by studying it carefully, we shall at last be able to feel the reason of this admiration and praise. The best of all libraries for a poor man would be a library entirely composed of such great works only, books which have passed the test of time. This then would be the most important guide for us In the choice of reading. We should read only the books that we want to read more than once, nor should we buy any others, unless we have some special reason for so investing money.

The second fact demanding attention is the general character of the value that lies hidden within all such great books. They never become old: their youth Is immortal. A great book is not apt to be comprehended by a young person at the first reading except In a superficial way. Only the surface, the narrative, is absorbed and enjoyed. No young man can possibly see at first reading the qualities of a great book. Remember that it has taken humanity In many cases hundreds of years to find out all that there is In such a book. But according to a man’s experience of life, the text will unfold new meanings to him. The book that delighted us at eighteen. If it be a good book, will delight us much more at twenty-five, and it will prove like a new book to us at thirty years of age. At forty we shall re-read it, wondering why we never saw how beautiful it was before. At fifty or sixty years of age the same facts will repeat themselves.

A great book grows exactly in proportion to the growth of the reader’s mind. It was the discovery of this extraordinary fact by generations of people long dead that made the greatness of such works as those of Shakespeare, of Dante, or of Goethe. Perhaps Goethe can give us at this moment the best illustration. He wrote a number of little stories in prose, which children like, because to children they have all the charm of fairy-tales. But he never intended them for fairy-tales; he wrote them for experienced minds. A young man finds very serious reading in them; a middle aged man discovers an extraordinary depth in their least utterance; and an old man will find in them all the world’s philosophy, all the wisdom of life. If one is very dull, he may not see much in them, but just in proportion as he is a superior man, and in proportion as his knowledge of life has been extensive, so will he discover the greatness of the mind that conceived them.

This does not mean that the authors of such books could have preconceived the entire range and depth of that which they put into their work. Great art works unconsciously without ever suspecting that it is great; and the larger the genius of a writer, the less chance there is of his ever knowing that he has genius; for his power is less likely to be discovered by the public until long after he is dead. The great things done in literature have not usually been done by men who thought themselves great.

Many thousand years ago some wanderer in Arabia, looking at the stars of the night, and thinking about the relation of man to the unseen powers that shaped the world, uttered all his heart in certain verses that have been preserved to us in the Book of Job. To him the sky was a solid vault; of that which might exist beyond it, he never even dreamed. Since his time how vast has been the expansion of our astronomical knowledge! We now know thirty millions of suns, all of which are probably attended by planets, giving a probable total of three hundred millions of other worlds within sight of our astronomical instruments. Probably multitudes of these are inhabited by intelligent life; it is even possible that within a few years more we shall obtain proof positive of the existence of an older civilization than our own upon the planet Mars.

How vast a difference between our conception of the universe and Job’s conception of it. Yet the poem of that simple minded Arab or Jew has not lost one particle of its beauty and value because of this difference. Quite the contrary! With every new astronomical discovery the words of Job take grander meanings to us, simply because he was truly a great poet and spoke only the truth that was In his heart thousands of years ago. Very anciently also there was a Greek story-teller who wrote a little story about a boy and girl In the country called “Daphnis and Chloe.” It was a little story, telling in the simplest language possible how that boy and girl fell in love with each other, and did not know why, and all the innocent things they said to each other, and how grown-up people kindly laughed at them and taught them some of the simplest laws of life. What a trifling subject, some might think. But that story, translated into every language in the world, still reads like a new story to us; and every time we re-read it, it appears still more beautiful, because it teaches a few true and tender things about innocence and the feeling of youth. It never can grow old, any more than the girl and boy whom it describes.

Or, to descend to later times, about three hundred years ago a French priest conceived the idea of writing down the history of a student who had been charmed by a wanton woman, and led by her Into many scenes of disgrace and pain. This little book, called “Manon Lescaut,” describes for us the society of a vanished time, a time when people wore swords and powdered their hair, a time when everything was as dlfferent as possible from the life of today. But the story is just as true of our own time as of any time in civilization; the pain and the sorrow affect us just as if they were our own; and the woman, who is not really bad, but only weak and selfish, charms the reader almost as much as she charmed her victim, until the tragedy ends. Here again is one of the world’s great books, that cannot die.

Or, to take one more example out of a possible hundred, consider the stories of Hans Andersen. He conceived the notion that moral truths and social philosophy could be better taught through little fairy-tales and child stories than in almost any other way; and with the help of hundreds of old fashioned tales, he made a new series of wonderful stories that have become a part of every library and are read in all countries by grown up people much more than by children. There is in this astonishing collection of stories, a story about a mermaid which I suppose you have all read. Of course there can be no such thing as a mermaid; from one point of view the story is quite absurd. But the emotions of unselfishness and love and loyalty which the story expresses are immortal, and so beautiful that we forget about all the unreality of the framework; we see only the eternal truth behind the fable.

You will understand now exactly what I mean by a great book. What about the choice of books? Some years ago you will remember that an Englishman of science, Sir John Lubbock, wrote a list of what he called the best books in the world — or at least the best hundred books. Then some publishers published the hundred books in cheap form. Following the example of Sir John, other literary men made different lists of what they thought the best hundred books in existence; and now quite enough time has passed to show us the value of these experiments. They have proved utterly worthless, except to the publishers.

Many persons may buy the hundred books; but very few read them. And this is not because Sir John Lubbock’s idea was bad; it is because no one man can lay down a definite course of reading for the great mass of differently constituted minds. Sir John expressed only his opinion of what most appealed to him; another man of letters would have made a different list; probably no two men of letters would have made exactly the same one. The choice of great books must under all circumstances be an individual one.

In short, you must choose for yourselves according to the light that is in you. Very few persons are so many sided as to feel inclined to give their best attention to many different kinds of literature. In the average of cases it is better for a man to confine himself to a small class of subjects — the subjects best according with his natural powers and inclinations, the subjects that please him. And no man can decide for us without knowing our personal character and disposition perfectly well and being in sympathy with it, where our powers lie. But one thing is easy to do — that is, to decide, first, what subject in literature has already given you pleasure, to decide, secondly, what is the best that has been written upon that subject, and then to study that best to the exclusion of ephemeral and trifling books which profess to deal with the same theme, but which have not yet obtained the approbation of great critics or of a great public opinion.

Those books which have obtained both are not so many in number as you might suppose. Each great civilization has produced only two or three of the first rank, if we except the single civilization of the Greeks. The sacred books embodying the teaching of all great religions necessarily take place in the first rank, even as literary productions; for they have been polished and repolished, and have been given the highest possible literary perfection of which the language in which they are written is capable. The great epic poems which express the ideals of races, these also deserve a first place. Thirdly, the masterpieces of drama, as reflecting life, must be considered to belong to the highest literature. But how many books are thus represented? Not very many. The best, like diamonds, will never be found In great quantities.

Besides such general indications as I thus ventured, something may be said regarding a few choice books — those which a student should wish to possess good copies of and read all his life. There are not many of these. For European students it would be necessary to name a number of Greek authors. But without a study of the classic tongues such authors could be of much less use to the students of this country; moreover, a considerable knowledge of Greek life and Greek civilization is necessary to quicken appreciation of them. Such knowledge is best gained through engravings, pictures, coins, statues — through those artistic objects which enable the imagination to see what has existed; and as yet the artistic side of classical study is scarcely possible in Japan, for want of pictorial and other material.

I shall therefore say very little regarding the great books that belong to this category. But as the whole foundation of European literature rests upon classical study, the student should certainly attempt to master the outhnes of Greek mythology, and the character of the traditions which inspired the best of Greek Hterature and drama. You can scarcely open an English book belonging to any high class of literature, In which you will not find allusions to Greek beliefs, Greek stories, or Greek plays. The mythology is almost necessary for you; but the vast range of the subject might well deter most of you from attempting a thorough study of it. A thorough study of it, however, is not necessary.

What is necessary is an outline only; and a good book, capable of giving you that outline in a vivid and attractive manner would be of inestimable service. In French and German there are many such books; in English, I know of only one, a volume in Bohn’s Library, Keightley’s ”Mythology of Ancient Greece and Italy.” It is not an expensive work; and it has the exceptional quality of teaching in a philosophical spirit. As for the famous Greek books, the value of most of them for you must be small, because the number of adequate translations is small. I should begin by saying that all verse translations are useless.

No verse translation from the Greek can reproduce the Greek verse — we have only twenty or thirty lines of Homer translated by Tennyson, and a few lines of other Greek poets translated by equally able men, which are at all satisfactory. Under all circumstances take a prose translation when you wish to study a Greek or Latin author. We should of course consider Homer first. I do not think that you can afford not to read something of Homer.

There are two excellent prose translations in English, one of the Iliad and one of the Odyssey. The latter is for you the more important of the two great poems. The references to it are innumerable in all branches of literature; and these references refer usually to the poetry of its theme, for the Odyssey is much more a romance than is the Iliad. The advantage of the prose translation by Lang and Butcher is that it preserves something of the rolling sound and music of the Greek verse, though it is only prose. That book I should certainly consider worth keeping constantly by you; its utility will appear to you at a later day.

The great Greek tragedies have all been translated; but I should not so strongly recommend these translations to you. It would be just as well, in most cases, to familiarize yourselves with the stories of the dramas through other sources; and there are hundreds of these. You should at least know the subject of the great dramas of Sophocles, Eschylus, and above all Euripides. Greek drama was constructed upon a plan that requires much study to understand correctly; it is not necessary that you should understand these matters as an antiquarian does, but it is necessary to know something of the stories of the great plays. As for comedy, the works of Aristophanes are quite exceptional in their value and interest. They require very little explanation; they make us laugh today just as heartily as they made the Athenians laugh thousands of years ago; and they belong to immortal literature. There is the Bohn translation in two volumes,
which I would strongly recommend. Aristophanes is one of the great Greek dramatists whom we can read over and over again, gaining at every reading. Of the lyrical poets there is also one translation likely to become an English classic, although a modern one; that is Lang’s translation of Theocritus, a tiny little book, but very precious of its kind.

You see I am mentioning very few; but these few would mean a great deal for you, should you use them properly. Among later Greek work, work done in the decline of the old civilization, there is one masterpiece that the world will never become tired of — I mentioned it before, the story of “Daphnis and Chloe.” This has been translated into every language, and I am sorry to say that the best translation is not English, but French — the version of Amyot. But there are many English translations. That book you certainly ought to read. About the Latin authors, it is not here necessary to say much. There are very good prose translations of Virgil and Horace, but the value of these to you can not be very great without a knowledge of Latin. However, the story of the Eneid is necessary to know, and it were best read in the version of Conington.

In the course of your general education It is impossible to avoid learning something regarding the chief Latin writers and thinkers; but there is one Immortal book that you may not have often seen the name of; and it is a book everybody should read — I mean the “Golden Ass” of Apulelus. You have this in a good English translation. It Is only a story of sorcery, but one of the most wonderful stories ever written, and It belongs to world literature rather than to the literature of a time.

But the Greek myths, although eternally Imperishable in their beauty, are not more intimately related to English literature than are the myths of the ancient English religion, the religion of the Northern races, which has left its echoes all through our forms of speech, even In the names of the days of the week. A student of English literature ought to know something about Northern mythology. It is full of beauty also, beauty of another and stranger kind; and It embodied one of the noblest warrior-faiths that ever existed, the religion of force and courage. You have now In the library a complete collection of Northern poetry, I mean the two volumes of the “Corpus Poeticum Boreali.” Unfortunately you have not as yet a good collection of the Sagas and Eddas. But, as in the case of the vaster subject of Greek mythology, there is an excellent small book in English, giving an outline of all that is important — I mean necessary for you — in regard to both the religion and the literature of the Northern races, Mallet’s “Northern Antiquities.” Sir Walter Scott contributed the most valuable portion of the translations in this little book; and these translations have stood the test of time remarkably well. The introductory chapters by Bishop Percy are old fashioned, but this fact does not in the least diminish the stirring value of the volume. I think it is one of the books that every student should try to possess.

With regard to the great modern masterpieces translated into English from other tongues, I can only say that it is better to read them in the originals, if you can. If you can read Goethe’s “Faust” in German, do not read it in English; and If you can read Heine in German, the French translation in prose, which he superintended, and the English translations (there are many of them) in verse can be of no use to you. But if German be too difficult, then read “Faust” in the prose version of Hayward, as revised by Dr. Buchheim. You have that in the library; and it is the best of the kind In existence. “Faust” is a book that a man should buy and keep, and read many times during his life. As for Heine, he is a world poet, but he loses a great deal in translation; and I can only recommend the French prose version of him; the English versions of Browning and Lazarus and others are often weak.
Some years ago a series of extraordinary translations of Heine appeared In Blackwood’s Magazine; but these have not appeared, I beheve, in book form.
As for Dante, I do not know whether he can make a strong appeal to you in any language except his own; and you must understand the Middle Ages very well to feel how wonderful he was. I might say something similar about other great Italian poets. Of the French dramatists, you must study Molière; he is next in importance only to Shakespeare. But do not read him in any translation. Here I should say positively, that one who cannot read French might as well leave Molière alone; the English language cannot reproduce his delicacies of wit and allusion.

As for modern English literature, I have tried in the course of my lectures to indicate the few books deserving of a place In world-literature; and I need scarcely repeat them here. Going back a little further, however, I should like to remind you again of the extraordinary merit of Malory’s book, the “Morte D’Arthur,” and to say that it Is one of the very few that you should buy and keep and read often. The whole spirit of chivalry is in that book; and I need scarcely tell you how deep is the relation of the spirit of chivairy to all modern English literature. I do not recommend you to read Milton, unless you intend to make certain special studies of language; the linguistic value of Milton is based upon Greek and Latin literature. As for his lyrics — that is another matter. Those ought to be studied. As there is little more to say, except by way of suggestion,

I think that you ought, every one of you, to have a good copy of Shakespeare, and to read Shakespeare through once every year, not caring at first whether you can understand all the sentences or not; that knowledge can be acquired at a later day. I am sure that if you follow this advice you will find Shakespeare become larger every time that you read him, and that at last he will begin to exercise a very strong and very healthy influence upon your methods of thinking and feeling. A man does not require to be a great scholar in order to read Shakespeare. And what is true of reading Shakespeare, you will find to be true also in lesser degree of all the world’s great books. You will find it true of Goethe’s “Faust.” You will find it true of the best chapters in the poems of Homer. You will find it true of the best plays of Moliere. You will find it true of Dante, and of those books In the English Bible about which I gave a short lecture last year.

And therefore I do not think that I can better conclude these remarks than by repeating an old but very excellent piece of advice which has been given to young readers: “Whenever you hear of a new book being published, read an old one.”

**Patrick Lafcadio Hearn / Koizumi Yakumo (1850-1904);  Talks to Writers, New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1920 (collections of the lectures Lafcadio Hearn gave at the University of Tokyo between 1896 and 1902)

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