This article answers more than one great question. More than you would guess.
Q: How can I develop a love for great literature? I started reading Moby Dick once, but it was so hard I just gave up.
A: by Wayne C. Booth, Professor of English, University of Chicago The question of how to develop a love for great literature is a little like questions about other forms of love. People don’t ask “How can I develop a love for my girl friend?” or “How can I develop a love for a beautiful car?” We seem to love many things in life spontaneously, and that leads us to expect that if we do not discover a spontaneous love for great art, there is nothing we can do about it. Or we may even come to think that from a sheer sense of duty we can require ourselves to love what other people have told us is lovely and of good report.
But if we look closely at how our “spontaneous” loves develop or die, we see that they only endure and grow if certain conditions are met. First of all, any genuine love requires repeated and deepening experience. Even so-called love-at-first-sight will never endure for long unless one, by repeated and deepening experiences, learns to see more and more qualities in his beloved. And most of our loves—even of people—do not arise at “first sight” but only after prolonged enrichment of our vision and our capacity to see what is there to be loved. The questioner who says “I started Moby Dick once, but it was so hard I just gave up” seems to be placing a demand on the book that would make any loving relationship impossible. It is like saying, “I tried to fall in love with Mary the first day I met her, but she puzzled me so much I just gave up.”
Even more important than the length of time spent is the person’s willingness to put his or her whole soul into the attempt. Love of persons fails to develop or dies when the suitor insists that the beloved provide all of the energy and reward. Love of good literature or music or art is just like that. A book will give its reader only what the reader can re-create for himself. Many books are written to attract the greatest number of the easily caught—they are like men or women who “get themselves up” in the hope of catching even the laziest eye. Similarly, TV shows are usually designed to require no effort and no creative imagination from the viewer. It is thus easy to love television in the sense of wanting to live with it daily; it is easy because so much of television makes no demands upon us whatever; it gives the illusion of giving all we need. Appreciation of good literature—like genuine religious experience, active participation in natural beauty, or building a marriage—requires our willingness to lose ourselves in it, even when the immediate rewards do not seem exciting.
The comparison between loving literature and loving people may be misleading, however, because literature is such a general word, covering so much ground, that in a sense nobody ever could love anything that big. What one loves is particular books and poems and stories. We have no commandment to love all literature. We are commanded to be charitable to all men, but we need not be charitable to all books. Anyone trying to develop a love relationship with literature ought to begin with those works that are closest at hand and that seem most likely to be rewarding. Just as most of us find it easier to say that we love our fellowmen than to be kind to our own children, neighbors, or office mates, so it is tempting to try to “love literature” and yet do no actual reading.
So I would say to anyone who really believes, as I do, that a love of literature is life-enhancing: start reading, today! Make an appointment with yourself to read whatever seems to you most rewarding, for at least one hour each day. The reading might be done aloud with friends orfamily, or by yourself but it should be done at a time of day when you are fully alert, wide awake, able to give yourself totally to your developing love.
In short, every human love is first developed and then sustained by a giving of self that can be described either as work or play. What you do not work at, you cannot fully enjoy. Love of literature is the happy by-product of many happy hours of working with and learning to love particular novels, plays, and poems.