Great Books; and the Kick
By Eli Siegel
In 1962, Eli Siegel wrote this, in the journal Definition: "'Great Books; and the Kick' shows the question of the relation of intimate self and large world as inseparable from the best dealing with a paperback reprint of a Great, Classic Work."
What needs my Shakespeare, for his honored bones
The labour of an age in pilèd stones? —Milton
Always people have wanted to read great books. Really, people would just as soon read great books as little books, or what is called "ephemeral literature." The only trouble, and it is a big one, is that they don't most often enjoy the great books. Further, as soon as a person enjoys a great book like Aristotle's Metaphysics or Smith's Wealth of Nations, he no longer sees himself as of the people; so he no longer counts. He is now with the learned and exclusive. Moreover, the entireness of his enjoyment can be equitably doubted.
The question, then, really is how to read a great book, enjoy and yet feel you're not somebody special. The joy that is attended by being "special" is not the joy great books need. I have yet to meet a person who had somewhat easy going with Descartes' On Method and saw himself like other people. There is an unorganized, unasserted number of people who are of Those Who Have Read Descartes On Method And Who Did Not Mind It Too Much, In Fact Liked It So They Say. Since this organization doesn't exist we can call it once by a very long name.
That day will be the day when somebody will say, somebody who isn't too special, "I'm reading Spinoza's Ethics and can't tear myself away from it. Poker, my friend, beckoned; a drive beckoned; a conversation with a favorite niece beckoned; but Spinoza and his Ethics won out. Boy, is this the life."
The last speech is somewhat incredible, but the nub of it is sound, indeed exemplary. Great books will really be the great books when people talk of them with a glow of the eyes, a pleased quiver of the lip, and if need be, an enthusiastic stamp of the foot. In other words, they will show unmistakably they are getting a kick out of a great book. (Because kick also means objection, I have adroitly made my title what it is.)
You may be sure all this has a serious aspect. In fact, there is nothing in the world which doesn't have a serious aspect. The serious aspect of all this is, perhaps, that a great book will never be a great book until it can hold its own with the engagingly trivial, the engrossingly fleshly, the insistently domestic. A great book is a great book, but in a fight with Love, where would the choice be? Unless, I assert, a great book can cope with a kiss in the battleground of the universe, a great book is not all it says it is.
From what I hear, even today, when people discuss the great books there is something of the chapel feeling. People try to be urbane, and I’m sure estimable witticisms come to be, and there may be the triumphantly casual smoking of a cigarette, but "the great book feeling" is oppressively there. It is like nothing else the world has. It is awesome, inexpressible, grandiose, unmistakable; and not so comfortable, when you really think about it.
Unless you're playing, you cannot say, "The Himalayas do something to me." You cannot say, "I find in the contemplation of the Pacific a delight which nothing, nothing can take the place of." In the same way, you cannot say, "What goings-on I (or we) had with Montesquieu's Spirit of Laws last evening!" We just haven't come to it. Yet, unless we can talk of The Spirit of Laws with the evidence of satisfaction that the happy drinker sometimes shows in a cluck, or the happy eater in a smack of the lips, or the unguarded child in an impetuous "ooh," we shall not be talking of Montesquieu's quietly threatening work with all the hedonistic and spiritual accompaniments a great thing deserves.
Perhaps it is going on somewhere, and I hope it is—but I don't think there is any group of people in America who know how to tell about their having read great books , about their reading a particular great book, or even about their desire to read a great book. (Particularly, if a person uses the phrase "great book" as he talks about reading one, is he lost.) It is a subtle matter, this matter of what the right manner is when talking of a great book as that which last Tuesday night was read by oneself. (The cumbersomeness, as it were, of the last sentence is an indication of the difficulty of the procedure necessarily indicated.) It is just as hard to say, "I am reading those classics of ornate yet theological prose, Holy Living and Holy Dying, by Jeremy Taylor," as it is most often to say, "I agree with you heartily," when someone tells you you're the best man for something or other. It hasn't been noted, but talking about reading great books as great books, is embarrassing: it is embarrassing except, maybe, in a cathedral. Only in the advertisements is it easy.
It all comes from the fact that people don't feel that they deserve to read great books. One can feel just as little that one deserves to read and enjoy Bacon's Novum Organum as that one deserves to become, and profit from becoming, Archbishop of Canterbury. We weren't trained for it.
And it is well known that the sense of undeservingness shows itself in a certain awkwardness. The first question then is, Do people deserve to read and like the great books? The second question is, If you think so, on what basis do you think so?
Somewhere, there is an authentic "poor little me" in persons, not the spurious "poor little me" that eminent show—women can bring forth. This "poor little me" is just scared of great books, and even if the observable "me" containing the "poor little me" reads a great book, looks faithfully at all the paragraphs , it can be afraid to think that it has; and can be, too, so afraid before, during, and after the perusal of the great work, that the idea of honest, seltzer, bounding joy is elsewhere.
You see, we associate a great book with a mysterious source. Somehow, it comes from a formidable and large and even endless world. Meeting such a world is not our style. The world as deep and endless can embarrass us as the idea of death embarrasses. The profound, the great, the mighty, the infinite, as a thing to become intimately our own, frightens and shames us. We are not up to it.
And so, when people have to cope with the greatest import of Hamlet, they don't cope with it; or if they do, they come to think it was somebody else. "What is grandeur to me?" people ask in a fashion, and the answer is not adequate.
From all this, one can rightly surmise that great books will never come into their intimate own, until people can feel graceful about them. I remember, before the Chicago University gathering of great books, reading about the impact of Sir John Lubbock's Hundred Best Books and Frederic Harrison's array in his The Choice of Books, on people in England and America. I must say that it seemed as if whenever an Englishman like Luke Worley met one of the Greek tragedies in Lubbock's list, Luke became stiff, embarrassed, somebody else—complimented, but doleful; and when I thought of an American like Jonathan Riggs meeting Virgil, as advocated in Harrison's list, I saw Riggs lose a little of his esprit de corps, his customary cheerfulness, his unaffected Western way.
I see no reason not to fear now. We are not up to talking about great books as we should, because we don't feel them as we should. We are not ethically over the fence.
We have to feel that the grandeur of the world is intimate for us before the grandeur of a book is properly, pleasingly apprehended. How can we come to Sophocles' Antigone as to a table of a favorite restaurant, unless we see the meaning of the Antigone as friendly, as a neighbor on the next block, there by our own desire? We can say Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire a hundred times (and time has been spent worse) but Gibbon's work will never mean what it should, under the ribs, unless we see it somehow as a keen uncle sees a favorite niece.
In the meantime, everything else we do interferes with the correct intake of the great books. Shaking hands with relatives is a subtle interference; a fondness for ice cream, slightly inordinate, is an interference; a desire to bet and win on the horses gets in the way of the right taking to oneself of Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici; and the desire simply to be unbothered in one's relation to oneself is antagonistic to the most felicitous reception of Hume's Treatise of Human Nature, or Mill's Utilitarianism, or any other such work.
The Great Books won't be the great books until simple joy, joy that can go along with the joy of well-timed food, accompanies the reading of these books. Such joy, as far as I can see, is not yet forthcoming . The great books will wait. They always have.
Copyright © 1962 by Eli Siegel
NOTE: "Great Books; and the Kick" appeared in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, #821, December 28, 1988.