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The Straggler

The Proper Study

by John Derbyshire

‘Should I read Thomas Mann?” Miss Straggler wanted to know. She has enrolled in some sort of freshman Western Lit course at college, and keeps coming up with these questions.

What to say? I have never, to my knowledge, read a single word Thomas Mann ever wrote, though I did sit through that sappy Dirk Bogarde movie of Death in Venice. One’s offspring look up to one for guidance on such things, and I didn’t have any. I confessed my ignorance, following up with a sheepish stale quip about the proper study of mankind being man, but not necessarily Thomas Mann.

I seem to have gotten away with it — without, I mean, any very dramatic bursting of Miss’s balloons. Perhaps, after 20 years’ close acquaintance with her dad, she has none left to burst. They take our measure at last.

My insecurity in this zone is acute, and getting acuter. The Charles Dickens bicentenary is almost upon us, and I live in dread that one of my editors will ask me to write something about the old boy. My acquaintance with Dickens is basic: Pickwick, Copperfield, Twist, and a couple of others. I read the American Notes, too, and recommend them as a corrective to anyone, if there still is anyone, who thinks lightly of slavery. I have never read Great Expectations, though, nor half a dozen others. If Dickens were a ski resort, I could just about cope adequately with the blue slopes.

Even more distressing than Great Books I have not read are the ones I have read but retained no impression of. This happens a lot with translations. I read The Charterhouse of Parma once, but can now remember only the name of the hero: Fabrizio del Dongo. (Which is hard to forget.) There is reading for pleasure, and there is reading for improvement. I am too ill-disciplined for the latter, and rarely get far into a book someone has told me is important. I take some comfort from Kingsley Amis’s apothegm that “in literature, ‘importance’ is not important; only good writing is.”

These things are relative, of course. An anonymous writer calling himself Professor X has recently published a book, In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, that describes his experiences teaching evening sessions to working-class citizens who need a college credential. He is sympathetic towards these people, who are in a place they do not want to be after a hard day’s work, but he is frank about their un-bookishness. “They have no truck at all with books or any sort of intellectual commerce,” he tells us. “They don’t go anywhere where there are books, not even the college library.”

I’m way more bookish than that, but still out of my depth in high-literary circles. It irks me that I am not a well-read man. (May I say “am ill-read”? Thank you.) It puts me in company with the stereotypical bourgeois boor, who wishes he were better educated than he is, and even tries to fake bookishness. Flann O’Brien, in one of his fantasy-comic sketches back in the days when books were sold with uncut pages, conjured up a man who, for a fee, would come to your house and cut the pages of the books in your library. He would also crack their spines, turn down some page corners, and introduce strategic coffee stains here and there. Persons browsing in your library would then suppose that you were a well-read man.

The pain of my own deficiency is the greater because I am surrounded for a fair part of my workday with sensationally well-read persons. David Pryce-Jones takes the palm. Not only has he read absolutely everything in at least two languages, he has been personally acquainted with a good portion of the 20th-century writers he’s read. Rick Brookhiser, with whom I cohabit on this page, is in the same league, and can drop an apt allusion from Thackeray or Turgenev into a conversation about wood-burning stoves with the lethal (to my self-esteem) accuracy of a Saudi executioner.

There are excuses with which I can console myself. I was a STEM student. That’s what we’re supposed to say nowadays: STEM. It stands for “science, technology, engineering, and math.” Mastering differential equations doesn’t leave a lot of time over for Turgenev. Not that we didn’t do our best. We math geeks used to quip defensively that when we dated girls from the humanities or soft-science departments, while visiting their rooms we could browse their books while they were making coffee or powdering noses; but they never browsed our books.

It was true, too. I dated a girl from the Spanish department at a neighboring college, and at odd intervals while in her rooms read an entire book about Lope de Vega, though I did not have and do not yet have the slightest interest in Spanish literature. I did, of course, have a deep interest in the girl. (Do you have any idea how prolific Lope de Vega was? The number of plays he wrote is not known to the nearest hundred! I bet he was well-read, too.) By contrast, the only hands that ever took Riesz and SzĹ‘kefalvi-Nagy’s Functional Analysis down from my bookshelf were mine, and that very reluctantly — it is a dull book, with no exercises.

So, ha! I may not have read Cranford or The Magic Mountain, but I have read every word of Tarski’s Introduction to Logic, and of Hilbert and Cohn-Vossen’s Geometry and the Imagination, and Hardy’s Pure Mathematics. Also some good-sized translated chunks of Gauss’s Disquisitiones Arithmeticæ and Landau’s Primzahlen, and even, as a college task, a few pages of Whitehead and Russell’s Principia Mathematica (which is written mostly in a made-up logical symbolism). Take that, you literary snobs!

But no, it won’t do. It is by understanding ourselves, in our social relations, that we become wise, and a novelist of genius can bring us to that understanding more pleasurably, and with less mental labor, than any formal study. Mathematics is beautiful, but as Bertrand Russell noted, its beauty is “cold and austere . . . without appeal to any part of our weaker nature.” The proper study of mankind is man, after all. If I am not wise, it’s because I have too little literature.

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