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If it were your ambition to convince a friend that her deeply held belief, cherished since childhood—say, that apple cider is undrinkable, undigestible, and unbearable—is dangerously off the mark, you need only offer her a taste either to confirm or complicate her certainty. Good will is the only lever required, in such matters of taste, to cut a towering absolute down to something that allows for the sight not merely of doubt but, potentially, delight. If it were your ambition, however, to convince your friend not that cider is yummy but that reading is as well—a fine pastime at minimum and, at best, a life-saver—you would be, to use a sophisticated bit of exegetical shorthand favored by the literary: nuts.
You can no more convince an adult that reading matters than you can build a new foundation to save a house already fallen into collapse. For an adult to be a reader, the child they were must have been a reader: for a child to be a reader, an adult within its immediate arc must be a reader. Books that would sway the non-reading adult towards the practice of reading, and which would try to sway such an adult to do something they do not (reading) by doing something they won’t do (reading) drive me, therefore, bananas. They make, for all their good will, precious little practical sense.
When I saw the cover of Margaret Willes new book, Reading Matters (Yale), I confess to having been so blinded by its title that I did not bother to look, for several days, at its cheering sub: Five Centuries of Discovering Books. “This book sets out to examine how people bought and acquired books over the past five hundred years, thus combing two of my favourite activities, shopping and reading,” Willes’s book begins. Though I happen to be someone who hates shopping as much as he loves reading, I was very engaged by Willes’s walk through the history of one of our less reprehensible regions of conspicuous consumption.
“I cannot live without books,” Willes tells us Thomas Jefferson told John Adams, in a chapter on Jefferson’s 6,487 volume library which—after the 3,000 volumes in our de facto national library, the Library of Congress, were burned to nothing by the British, in 1814—he sold to the United States as a replacement (two thirds of which, in 1851, were lost to yet another fire). Willes is a knowledgeable guide to the material and a clear, unfussy writer, one more eager to share what she knows than to convince us we should know it. Words aside, the book is also pleasurably and usefully full of pictures. I could stare at the photo of a Penguincubator all day, now that Willes has convinced me of its existence, and of how it came to be.
More from Wyatt Mason:
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”