Staggering Cornucopias

In Dresden, Germany, during a partial lockdown, March 23, 2020 (Matthias Rietschel / Reuters)
On books to read and music to listen to — or not

Editor’s Note: This is an expanded version of an essay published in the current issue of National Review.

Vladimir Horowitz, the great pianist, was a complicated person. He pretty much did not leave his home for twelve years. Later, a guest had the chutzpah to ask, “You mean, you didn’t leave this house for twelve years?” Horowitz, glancing around and gesturing, said, “You don’t like my house?”

When Bill Buckley heard about this, he loved it. He told the story using an excellent Horowitz impression — dead-on.

There is a lot of home confinement these days, and we may not be in a place like Horowitz’s: a beautiful townhouse on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He had the piano to play, and practice, and he made several recordings during his dozen years of self-isolation.

You may be playing the piano too. You may be playing some other instrument, or singing, or even composing. You can certainly listen to music — on YouTube, for example, that staggering cornucopia. Virtually the whole of music, at the flick of our fingers.

I asked someone the other day, “Can you imagine home confinement without the Internet?” “Hardly,” he said — “and we would not even be able to listen to baseball on the radio” (suspended as baseball is, along with much else).

Some people are taking on major listening projects, though that makes it sound too much like work. I know a family, for example, that is watching the Ring cycle on video. Ideally, this should be done over four days, as Wagner designates the parts of his tetralogy “Vorabend” (or “Fore-evening”), “Day One,” “Day Two,” and “Day Three.”

Every evening, Igor Levit is performing a little recital via Twitter. They take place at 7 p.m., Central European Time. Levit is a Russian-German pianist, and one of the best in the world. He is doing these daily recitals as a gift to one and all. The situations are not the same, but I can’t help thinking of Dame Myra Hess during the Blitz. She gave noontime recitals at the National Gallery — which boosted national morale.

Even in normal times, Igor Levit is one of the most intense of pianists. He plays as though the activity were the most important thing in the world — even the only thing. He is even more intense in this time of pandemic. I thought of what Leonard Bernstein said after the Kennedy assassination: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

Music organizations trot out this statement in terrible times, such as after 9/11. I never liked the statement, finding it treacly, platitudinous, and even a little pompous. I’m not sure I feel that way anymore.

There are a number of things we might do at home (besides worrying about financial or physical survival, of course). Physical fitness? In the form of weightlifting, or jump-roping? Learning a language, probably with the help of the Internet? Repairing or building something? Cleaning?


In 1994, Harold Bloom came out with his book The Western Canon. At the back, it had appendices, providing for what amounted to a life’s reading. I xeroxed those pages, expecting to keep them with me always, and to march through the lists.

I’ll get started any day now. (No, I won’t.)

One of Bloom’s chapters is “The Canonical Novel.” It focuses on Bleak House and Middlemarch. Forthwith, I went out and bought those two books — good used copies, in hardcover. I seldom bought books in those days, having not very much money. I borrowed them from libraries — as I had The Western Canon (which is why I xeroxed the appendices). But I knew, because Bloom said so, that I had to have Bleak House and Middlemarch.

For the next many years, I carried them with me wherever I went — as I changed addresses and traveled. I started each one, several times. I could never keep going.

Last year, I said to myself, “You’re going to read Bleak House. I don’t care if you like it. You’re going to read it, if it kills you. Every page. Even if it takes a year, or more.” Over about five weeks, I read about 300 pages. I finally gave myself permission to give up. I have no doubt — none — that Bleak House is an immortal masterpiece. I just can’t get with it, somehow.

I have a friend — an American fellow — who married another American, though Mexican-born. He decided, early on, that he was going to learn Spanish, mainly to communicate with his in-laws. He tried and tried. Eventually, he threw in the towel (or said, Roberto Durán–style, “No más”). “I have my share of skills,” he says today, “but language-learning is not one of them. I had to make my peace with that.”

Let me tell you something funny about Middlemarch: A couple of weeks into our national lockdown, or semi-lockdown, my friend Kevin Williamson published a piece titled, bluntly, “Read Middlemarch.” Its subheading: “You know you’ve always meant to; now it’s put up or shut up.” I think I will shut up . . .

Several times, I tried to read The Magic Mountain. The novel is set in Davos, Switzerland, at a sanitarium. Reader, I was in that very sanitarium, that very place — which is now a hotel. I had the book in my hand, on the Zauberberg, on the magic mountain. Out my window, the snow twinkled in the moonlight. I was lying in a room that was possibly in the novel itself! And I could not persevere . . .

Bret Stephens told me, “The Magic Mountain is the second-best novel of the 20th century.” Naturally, I asked what he regarded as No. 1. Bret answered as if it was the most obvious thing in the world — as though I’d asked, “What day comes after Tuesday?” The answer was: Lord Jim. (That book was published in 1900, hovering between the centuries.) I have never tried Lord Jim, but I intend to.

The greatest compliment ever paid to an author, I think, was paid by Gilbert Ryle, the British philosopher, who was born in the Lord Jim year, 1900, and lived to 1976. Someone said, “You don’t read novels, do you?” He said, “Yes, I do. I read all six of them every year.” That’s how many novels, or major novels, Jane Austen wrote.

I confessed to Bill Kristol one night, many years ago, that I could not stick with Austen. (Are you sensing a pattern?) He said, “Do yourself a favor: Buy a good hardback copy — not a mass-market paperback — of Mansfield Park, and give it a serious try.” I bought it that very night, on the way home. I stayed with it for about 150 pages. I enjoyed it, sort of. But it was just so chatty, so leisurely. Who had the time?

The same night I bought Mansfield Park, I bought a good copy — not inexpensive — of The Red and the Black. No dice.

Anna Karenina is certainly on my list. I’m the type to know Rodion Shchedrin’s ballet score — and the ballet — rather than the novel itself. Norman Podhoretz told me that, in his judgment, it was the greatest novel ever written. Middlemarch, he said, “might be No. 2, I’m not sure.”

Roger Scruton, in a separate conversation, agreed on Anna Karenina — or mainly agreed. “There are competitors,” he said, and they include Middlemarch. “But there are weaknesses in the Eliot, and there are no weaknesses in the Tolstoy.” He also named The Brothers Karamazov, Emma, Madame Bovary, and Ulysses. “Those are all books that I read again and again,” he said.

One more thing, from Norman. “Tolstoy,” he said, “is up there, or almost, anyway, with Shakespeare and Bach.”

Moving to non-fiction, have you ever read the Decline and Fall? By acclamation, one of the greatest works of history ever written? For decades, I have owned an abridged, one-volume edition. I have read in it, but not through it. Someday?

A conversation with Andrew Roberts convinced me to read — or at least buy — all four volumes of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. For one thing, he said, Churchill was the greatest writer in English since Shakespeare. I expected to march through these volumes, right from the Druids, worshiping in the woods, to Cecil Rhodes in South Africa. I marched for a while — but since then have hop-scotched around, in odd moments.

Yet this long, sweeping, and wondrous work would make for a fine corona-time reading project, wouldn’t it? Especially for an Anglophile. (Churchill certainly deserved his Nobel Prize in Literature.)

Another fine project can be found online: “Great Thinkers” and “Contemporary Thinkers.” These stem from a program founded long ago by Harvey Mansfield and Bill Kristol. If you fancy an immersion in political philosophy, you could hardly do better. There are 28 “great thinkers,” from Herodotus to Heidegger. (That list is chronological.) There are 34 “contemporary thinkers,” from Hannah Arendt to Tom Wolfe. (Alphabetical.)

Reading philosophy is not for everyone. Years ago, I was relieved to see an exceptionally brainy person, John Derbyshire, say something in print: He could not read more than a few pages of philosophy at a time — it fatigued him. Same here. Other people (I have confirmed it with them) can read philosophy like comic books. They turn the pages, eagerly, lustily, as though they were engrossed in a spy novel.

A young philosopher friend of mine — recent Ph.D. from Princeton — urged me to read a little book by E. H. Gombrich, the art historian. (His Story of Art has long been a bible of the field.) In Search of Cultural History is simply a lecture, published at a measly 50 pages. I wanted to whip through it — or at least read it — to discuss it with my friend. But the very phrase “Herr Professor Hegel” (page 7) makes my lids heavy.

I think of an expression from junior high: “Let’s not and say we did.”

In February, before travel ceased, I went to see Enrique Krauze, the Mexican historian. He spoke of the intellectual influences on him, including Isaiah Berlin, whom he got to know, while teaching at Oxford. This made me think of Charles Krauthammer, who told me that when he read Berlin at age 18 — Four Essays on Liberty — he knew he had found what he believed, politically.

With Berlin on my mind, I picked up Four Essays, expecting to pour over each paragraph, in a serious way. Um . . .

The sorry truth is, I would rather play or listen to Mozart’s worst minuet than read even great philosophy. A song by Irving Berlin? Sure, any day. An essay by Isaiah Berlin? Look, I know it’s true, regardless. Vive la liberté.

I have said “sorry” truth — and I am a bit sorry, it’s true — but I also think that people are built differently, or inclined differently, and there is a world of choice out there, thank heaven.

For occupational and other reasons, I consume a lot of journalism. But even a junkie has his limits. In my e-mail system, I have a folder labeled “Arts.” — short for “Articles.” I place articles in there that I intend to read later. There are more than a thousand items in this folder, I feel sure. But I never dip into it; I only add to it. And yet, I don’t delete the articles, which is strange.

“You can read or you can write, and you can’t do both.” That has been my line, or excuse, for many years. I also say this: “I read like a banshee from age zero or so to age 30 or so. All of that is banked. You just make withdrawals on your bank, as you write along.” (And if you’re lucky, you make a few deposits too, true.)

At lunch one day, Bill Buckley smiled at his wife, Pat, and said, quietly, “I finished my book this morning.” For a second, I thought he meant a book he was reading. But he meant a book he was writing.

Maybe you are writing one too, during this time of quarantine? When there are blackouts and such, there are always lots of babies, nine months later. I expect a lot of books will come out of corona-time.

You know the expression “found money”: You reach into the pocket of an old jacket, and there’s a 20-dollar bill. Found money. There is such a thing as “found time,” too. Millions of people now have such time, whether they like it or not (and they don’t, for the most part, which is nothing if not understandable). May we all fill this time profitably and reasonably, somehow.

And when you finish Bleak House or ramble through “Great Thinkers,” let me know how wonderful it was. I will be very pleased, amid my newspapers and magazines, and my Mozart minuets.


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