The next four years I spent as an entirely uninterested high school student. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, George Eliot’s Adam Bede, a few essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson, all offered as part of the required school curriculum, none of them so much as laid a glove on me. Willa Cather, a writer I have come to admire as the greatest twentieth-century American novelist, chose not to allow any of her novels put into what she called “school editions,” lest young students, having to read her under the duress of school assignments, never return to her books when they were truly ready for them. She was no dope, Miss Cather.
Only after I had departed high school did books begin to interest me, and then only in my second year of college, when I transferred from the University of Illinois to the University of Chicago. Among the most beneficial departures from standard college fare at the University of Chicago was the brilliant idea of eliminating textbooks from undergraduate study. This meant that instead of reading, in a thick textbook, “In his Politics Aristotle held . . . ,” or “In Civilization and Its Discontents Freud argued . . . ,” or “In On Liberty John Stuart Mill asserted . . . ,” students read the Politics, Civilization and Its Discontents, On Liberty, and a good deal else. Not only read them, but, if they were like me, became excited by them. Heady stuff, all this, for a nineteen-year-old semi-literate who, on first encountering their names, was uncertain how to pronounce Proust or Thucydides.
Along with giving me a firsthand acquaintance with some of the great philosophers, historians, novelists, and poets of the Western world, the elimination of that dreary, baggy-pants middleman called the textbook gave me the confidence that I could read the most serious of books. Somehow it also gave me a rough sense of what is serious in the way of reading and what is not. Anyone who has read a hundred pages of Herodotus senses that it is probably a mistake—that is, a waste of your finite and therefore severely limited time on earth—to read a six-hundred-page biography of Bobby Kennedy, unless, that is, you can find one written by Xenophon.
What is the true point of a bookish life? Note I write “point,” not “goal.” The bookish life can have no goal: It is all means and no end….
Read it all.