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Books won’t save you You can't use literature as a shortcut to self-improvement

A woman, fixing her heart and lifting her soul. Credit: John Phillips/UK Press/Getty

A woman, fixing her heart and lifting her soul. Credit: John Phillips/UK Press/Getty


April 27, 2021   5 mins

Didn’t it used to be a philistine thing, to look at art and ask: “But what is it for?” I’m sure it did. I’m sure it used to be appreciated that excess was the point when it came to culture, and a Gradgrindian insistence on utility was the mark of somebody who was dead on the inside.

Oh well. That, presumably, was then. This is the depressing now, and it’s the people who claim to be on the side of culture who are pressing for the measure of it to be, not “Is it good?” but “Is it useful?”. And because we live in an era of relentless individualism, the only kind of useful that counts is making you — the unique and precious consumer — into a better person.

I came across a splendidly disheartening example of this in publicity for a new book called Wonderworks by Angus Fletcher, which publisher Simon & Schuster says “shows how writers have created
 engineering enhancements to the human heart and mind.” Sounds terrible, I thought, and so I read some of Wonderworks. And it was even worse than that.

Fletcher wants us to think of literature as a technology. Specifically, as “an innovation for troubleshooting our humanity”. It’s a thesis that comes with a dusting of neuroscientific talk about how “literature’s inventions can plug into different regions of the brain”, and a lot of purple prose. “The medicine men may have run out of unguents and potions; the heavens may have vanished or grown cold,” he writes. “But still, literature could fix hearts and lift souls. That, in brief, is why literature was invented and what it was invented to do.”

Oh really? This is what those of us in the business of literary criticism call “a heck of a claim”. Was the poet who wrote Beowulf  “fixing hearts and lifting souls”? Of course not. What they were actually doing was telling a baller story about fighting a big snake, imbued with reflections on feudal loyalty and vengeance which are semi-impenetrable from the society we live in now. That snake fight is forever, though.

Was Aphra Behn trying to “fix hearts and lift souls” when she turned out Oroonoko? I am pretty sure that what she was in fact doing was getting rich, given that she wrote for a living and wrote a lot. Were the patrons who sustained literature before the arrival of commercial publishing in the “heart-fixing, soul-lifting” business? No; they were displaying their wealth and culture to other wealthy, cultured people — and good on them, frankly.

It’s not that literature can’t be personally uplifting, or even morally improving; but when you insist that this is what literature is for, you make a claim that sits at odds with the manifest intentions of most writers and readers. Why do I read? Largely because I hate to be bored, and books are my favourite way of not being bored. (Also, a little bit, because I like people to think of me as someone who reads books.)

There is some psychological research suggesting that reading fiction helps people to exercise their empathy, perhaps leading them to act more generously. Whether those findings are robust and well-replicated, I don’t know, and I’m not really sure whether it’s necessary to make any claim stronger than this one on literature’s behalf: reading stories forces you to spend time inhabiting someone else’s subjectivity — Joan Didion, sinisterly, described writing as “an imposition of writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space” — and doing so might make you better at imagining the inner life of other people.

But here’s the kicker: if it works, it only works because you’re thinking about somebody other than yourself. To approach literature in the way Fletcher urges us to — as a shortcut to self-improvement which can help you “unfreeze your heart” with Samuel Beckett and “lessen your lonely” by reading Elena Ferrante (both genuine chapter titles, I swear) — is to approach it thinking only of yourself. It’s a solipsism utterly destructive not just to the enjoyment of fiction, but also to the quasi-medical benefits that Fletcher is touting.

Still, he’s hardly alone in his efforts to turn art into cure-all. Reading Lloyd Evans’ recent broadside against the “pleasure-free zone” of contemporary theatre, I discovered this quote from Matthew Warchus, artistic director of the Old Vic: “Fiction doesn’t have to be just a diversion or a pastime. It really can change individuals and societies for the better. Intelligent entertainment is a transformative necessity, not a luxury.” Sounds terrible, I thought, although as I haven’t seen the “intelligent entertainment” Warchus was referring to, I can’t give any judgement there.

But also, I don’t want to see anything that’s being touted as a “transformative necessity”. I like being diverted. I appreciate a show that passes the time. Leaving the auditorium and asking myself “did this change me individually and society as a whole for the better?” sounds very, very tiring. Theatres are uncomfortable enough already with the terrible seats and inadequate toilet situation; I don’t see why they should start pressing on my conscience as well as my bladder. Do you know what people actually like? Cats and The Mousetrap, that’s what people like.

Yet the most fun I’ve had at the theatre has often been very uncomfortable indeed. It’s just that the discomfort has been dramatic, rather than didactic: the strain of being made to feel for two different people at the same time, of holding both sides of an argument in your head at once. The next thing I’m going to see is a revival of David Mamet’s sexual harassment two-hander Oleanna. It will probably make me furious. I can’t wait.

I suspect that any play aiming to “change individuals and society for the better” isn’t going to invoke that kind of tension. Instead, it suggests some of the dreary issue-based theatre I’ve diligently sat through — the kind of play that knows what a good person would think, and is enjoyed by audiences made up of the self-identifying good. You come in agreeing and you leave agreeing, and actually, nothing is transformed.

The “useful” approach to art is the shortest way to hollow it of any purpose at all. If you’re trying to “energise your life” (another Fletcher chapter title, Lord help me) you should probably have a spoonful of peanut butter, and not — as he prescribes — read Frankenstein, which is a novel and an achingly tragic one, rather than a self-help tract. If you want to uplift the state of the nation, don’t watch a play, go into politics.

But if you want to read a novel or watch a play, you should do it for pleasure. It should feel like a luxury, rather than an obligation. It should be something that you invite to occupy your attention on its own terms, rather than conditional on its ability to fix you up — and if it doesn’t occupy your attention, you can bail at the interval or after the first fifty pages. Perhaps art will improve you as a person. But if it can’t entertain you, I don’t see why you should give it the chance.


Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.

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Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Sorry, can’t agree with this. The great works of drama, literature and perhaps even film (particularly the Czech New Wave of the 1960s or the German masterpieces of the 1970s) can help you to understand the world around you, or the world that is coming. They also help you to identify personality types so that you can avoid them or take preparatory action.
Here’s an example. The woke witch hunts have taken many people by surprise. Others – such as John McWhorter in his excellent interview with Freddie Gray yesterday – believe this new ‘religion’ to be only a few years old. But those of us who read Philip Roth’s Human Stain almost 25 years ago have at least been prepared for this.
In my case I have known for almost 25 years to stay freelance. Many people now say that the only way in which you are able to speak out and still earn a living is to be a freelancer. I have also known, for almost 25 years, that when interacting with organisations I should not make any of the jokes or sarcastic asides with which life was replete 30 or so years ago. (Sarcasm is now a ‘micro aggression’ in some organizations).
Houllebeca’s Soumission is another obvious example along with, for instance, Nadine Gormdimer’s A Most Honoured Guest. And I could provide many other examples of the way in which literature can act as a vital signal of the future, or an essential guide to the present.

Last edited 3 years ago by Fraser Bailey
Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I loved Soumission. Have you read Serotonine yet?
Also entirely agree on the freelance front…I’m heading towards 6 years, it’s a fight every single day but so rewarding and I couldn’t ever go back to an office job.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I have read Serotonine but I don’t particularly recommend it.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Most of my life has been self employed, and doing work I dislike mostly – and I full realize the great joy of having a Boss – you do not have to beat yourself to make your self work, all day every day, if you have a boss, because there is no choice, you cannot sit at home posting BTL if you have a boss, Like I find myself doing so much. The downside of a boss is I usually quit when they start telling me what to do.

But books… I am loading up the 250 linear ft of book shelves I just built in – what a load of books I have read! And what a greater load of books I have not read but accumulated, most of them likely good books too. I believe from reading the thousands of books consumed in my lifetime I have accumulated the distillation of thousands of lives experienced – which is amazing. No need to judge the utility of individual books because their real value is their aggregate. The more, and wider, you read, the more you have gotten.

Dr Stephen Nightingale
Dr Stephen Nightingale
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

On moving to the US in 1981, I quickly realized that jokes, sarcastic asides, puns and irony were off the table, unless I could be pretty sure the person I was speaking to actually knew English in its full polysemantic glory. Which usually turned out to be a person who had spent time in England. So I guess the intervening period was when English polysemanticism was gradually leached away here, too.

Johnny Sutherland
Johnny Sutherland
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I could suggest a number of good SF books which have accurately forecast what’s happening today. I can also list a plethora of pretentious crud which is supposed to be great literature, and is often hailed and awarded by the great and the good.

I don’t think Sara is dissing the good books just the pretentious ones that start out telling you they are going to improve your life or somesuch.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago

“Death of Grass”, by John Christopher is a happy odyssey.
Failing that John Wyndham is also splendid.

Starry Gordon
Starry Gordon
3 years ago

Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which I read back in the days of actual books, let me know that I was not alone. I doubt if it improved me much. But GarcĂ­a-Marquez said it turned him into a writer. ‘When I first read it,’ he said, ‘I was electrified. These are the kind of stories my grandmother used to tell’ (some grandmother!) ‘and it turned out you could make a living doing it!’ Cien años de soledad followed. But I know even stranger progressions. I have seen a person get something out of Ayn Rand’s work which I myself found unreadable. You never know, it seems.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Starry Gordon

I find Kafka rather depressing.
However I haven’t heard of Garcia -Marquez, which is quite disgraceful considering I have Spanish in-laws!

Many thanks, I shall investigate!

Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

This is a belated post so it will doubtless not be read by anyone. But I wanted to point out that the discussion of the purpose of literature goes back a long way. A good place to start (and a good read) is the Ars Poetica by Latin poet Horace who recommends that works of the imagination be both pleasing and useful. This remained the ideal through the Renaissance and into the eighteenth century. It still holds today. A good novel, play or poem can takes us into times, places and minds other than our own, so broadening our understanding and sometimes our capacity for empathy. Half of a Yellow Sun by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie did that for me. But its hold was also due to the pleasure procured by the superb skill with which she crafted sentences, her art in short. It’s important to distinguish too between imaginative writing as useful and as used. When it is used merely to support an ideology then the study of literature is drastically impoverished – as, unfortunately, it currently is.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Well I have just read it! I would add Anna Burns’s Milkman as an outstanding recent example of a book which, to use your excellent words, ‘takes us into time, places and minds other than our own, so broadening our understanding and sometimes capacity for empathy’.

Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I wouldn’t recommend her follow up Americanah which is too glaringly ideological – an illustration of what happens when s good writer gets sucked into American elite culture.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Yes, Fraser, but not every work of literature can, or should, be one of the greats.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
3 years ago

But if it can’t entertain you, I don’t see why you should give it the chance.” Well, that’s the spirit of the age talking! If you’re not gripped click on another link, swipe to another person.
I definitely wasn’t gripped by Middlemarch or Voss, but I had to read them at university and was very glad I did – I went on, willingly, to read all Eliot and White’s other novels. Very rewarding. I’m not sure I immediately took to piano lessons – the scales, arpeggios, and very simple pieces, but I’m very glad I was made to persevere – the rewards came later. I still usually don’t get Bach until I’ve learned the piece and really know it inside out.
I’ve been waiting for the right time to read Marilynne Robinson’s new novel Jack, because the first two in the trilogy were very hard to read at the beginning, wonderful by the end. So maybe we shouldn’t judge too quickly and instead let reputation, and advice from respected others, guide us.

Alison Houston
Alison Houston
3 years ago

I feel a bit shocked that you weren’t gripped by Middlemarch.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

I’m not sure that one is supposed to be ‘gripped’ by Middlemarch or indeed any novel by George Eliot, wonderful thought they are, for the most part.

Last edited 3 years ago by Fraser Bailey
Claire D
Claire D
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

Insults = loss of argument.

Christopher Hilton
Christopher Hilton
3 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Not an insult, but a fact. You are more insulting.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

I was never so bored. Read it through gritted teeth. Really loved all her others. But then, I was 18. Perhaps if I read it again now I would feel differently.

Johnny Sutherland
Johnny Sutherland
3 years ago

Sounds like my reaction to Anthony Trollope – had to read for English Lit ‘O’ Level – never again.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
3 years ago

This could only be similar to my immature reaction to Middlemarch (which should have been edited down to a short story). When I used to catch the train to work I couldn’t read Trollope because he made me laugh so much. Maybe you could try Trollope again – perfect summer holiday reading.

Rob Keeley
Rob Keeley
3 years ago

Can I recommend the BBC’s marvellous 1974 dramatisation (in 26 parts!) by Simon Raven of The Pallisers. When the BBC had the money and the imagination to put such things on

Johnny Sutherland
Johnny Sutherland
3 years ago

You may have missed “you can bail at the interval or after the first fifty pages”. If a play or a book hasn’t interested you enough to continue voluntarily by then why continue? As a punishment?

I split reading into one of two classes: 1) entertainment and 2) educational. If it should be in category 1 and isn’t entertaining me why should I continue reading? If its in category 2 I’ll plough on.

Hal Lives
Hal Lives
3 years ago

I don’t know why, but I have some kind of affliction whereby once I’ve started a book, even if it becomes clear that it’s utter tripe, I just have to finish it, grinding on, hate-reading it ’til the bitter end!

Toby Josh
Toby Josh
3 years ago

Some things are an acquired taste.

Fred Atkinstalk
Fred Atkinstalk
3 years ago
Reply to  Toby Josh

You are so right : whisky, garlic, anchovies, snails, Proust and Joyce, to name but a few. But you have to question whether some tastes are worth working to acquire. Andouillettes, or Stockhausen, or Geoffrey Archer, for example.

Starry Gordon
Starry Gordon
3 years ago

I think there was a different spirit in the 19th century when many of the monuments of literature were built. You weren’t entertained by The Brothers Karamazov, you lived a different life and were transformed by it — hopefully, edified. A quasi-religious experience, I suppose. Speaking of books, there’s the Bible and some other religious texts which many experience as having magical qualities. In some parts of southeast Asia, I have read, the entire Buddhist canon has been committed to a DVD, which is often found framed and hanging on the wall, rather than played or read.

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago

These books were written for a mass market-not to be studied. Reading was the main pastime until cinema arrived , which was then superceded by television. I read lots of books because i saw them dramatised-the first book I ever bought with my pocket-money was Tom’s Midnight Garden which I heard read on Jackanory. However I don’t think that I am virtuous for reading these books & I don’t know why children ( especially boys) are supposed to read certain books that bore them when a car-catalogue contains the same words.

Fred Atkinstalk
Fred Atkinstalk
3 years ago
Reply to  kathleen carr

Indeed. But boys will read the ‘right’ books – for my generation, that would be, for example, Biggles. (I confess I still have, and for relaxation, occasionally read, my copies of Biggles,!)

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago

My husband still has a signed photo of the actor who played Biggles.

Clare Haven
Clare Haven
3 years ago

I’m not sure we do live in an era of relentless individualism. Everywhere I look I see ultra-conformism, groupthink and acquiescence.
We may live in an era of relentless selfishness but that’s not quite the same thing.

Claire D
Claire D
3 years ago
Reply to  Clare Haven

Maybe we need to try and maintain a balance between our individualism and fitting in with our group, always bearing in mind either could be mistaken, requiring us to think again, or make a stand if necessary.

Last edited 3 years ago by Claire D
Alan Osband
Alan Osband
3 years ago
Reply to  Clare Haven

Exactly.Those who rant against racism or tribalism invariably cling to their own tribe or group.On certain campuses belonging to ER or Antifa would be utterly conformist.People seek out those with a worldview they feel they want to share for the sake of belonging..Few people genuinely like to be individuals.
Reading can give you fellow feeling with those who are dead or elsewhere.

Claire D
Claire D
3 years ago

I think Sarah is making a mistake here; she is muddling up our intentions for reading and going to the theatre – which really don’t matter, as long as we do those things, and the narcissism which is so prevalent in this age of social media.
If you decide to read as much of the canon as you can cram into your life, to learn, acquire knowledge and thereby improve yourself, that is worthwhile; it will not always be a pleasure by any means, it requires effort and determination, sometimes gratification will be delayed, but the rewards arrive slowly but surely. You will be enriched beyond your expectations, you will become wiser, your impression of the world expands and opens out.

It is possible, if not highly likely, that if narcissism causes someone to embark on such a journey of the mind and will, the narcissism will gradually melt away.

Last edited 3 years ago by Claire D
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

I am beginning to see the modern take on books, especially in education, which is there is only one reason to read or write a book, and that to show how racism is in everything and is in fact the most important thing in the world, and how we need to fix that at any cost, and to get rid of any books which are not about racism and its evils, because that means they are racist.

Claire D
Claire D
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Made me laugh.
It is sinister though.

Last edited 3 years ago by Claire D
Alan Osband
Alan Osband
3 years ago

And what of the exquisite feeling of one-upmanship gained by seeming not to be in the game

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
3 years ago

But if you want to read a novel or watch a play, you should do it for pleasure. 

Then I never would have read Sophie’s Choice, or a myriad of other books. Sometimes, you have to unflinchingly read things that are not remotely comfortable.
And the same applies to technical books. I know this is going draw either howls of protest or blank stares, but if you want a book to save you, get a laptop, download a simple compiler in a programming language of your choice (totally free), and read Algorithms + Data Structures = Programs, by Niklaus Wirth alongside, while you teach yourself to code. Seriously.

Robert Hochbaum
Robert Hochbaum
3 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Saved?? I dunno, dude… I learned to code (a mix of teaching and self-taught), I calibrated controllers that used that code to do some very interesting things that people use daily. I felt many things doing that. But, ‘saved’ most definitely is NOT one of them. You gotta be kidding.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
3 years ago

RH, firstly, my reaction to *anyone* who makes the effort to teach themselves anything new off their own bat, cooking, the moonlight sonata, but *especially* coding, is always: bravo!
As to being saved, well you cannot be the judge of that – just ask any jesuit priest. But from your post, I deem you have been ‘saved’.

Johnny Sutherland
Johnny Sutherland
3 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Nah – start with APL

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
3 years ago

Ok I can cede on that, the Iverson book is brilliant. But I go by my experience, which was that nothing made sense, until I came across that Wirth book at 18 – all the way back in 1979 – and then three weeks later, the world had snapped into focus.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
3 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

OR: you can read a book simply as a challenge. Back in March, I challenged myself to read Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six (900 pages) within a month. I got into a rhythm of reading 30 pages a day. I enjoyed the book more than I thought I would, but at the end of the day, it was about the satisfaction of reading such a massive book within quite a short space of time rather than the content.

Last edited 3 years ago by Katharine Eyre
Susannah Baring Tait
Susannah Baring Tait
3 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

When I was 17, I had run out of the kind of books I liked to read (we lived in the Somerset countryside far from bookshops) so, glancing at my father’s personal bookcase, I set myself the challenge of starting from the top left and, without missing one out, reading to the final ones at bottom right. I read books i would never have thought of picking up, even less of reading. And the experience opened my mind and broadened my horizons in the most exhilarating manner. The final books was the set of Gibbon’s The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. I even devoured the notes! Six decades later, i can still remember the pleasure i gained from it.

Last edited 3 years ago by Susannah Baring Tait
Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
3 years ago

Lovely anecdote. I kind of do the same with the public book exchange shelves near where I live. I make a point of picking up whatever English language books are there. In that way, I’ve been introduced to Peter Hoeg, Jodi Picoult, Joyce Carol Oates, Per Olov Enquist and many more. Some I liked, some I didn’t. But it did broaden my horizons.

Last edited 3 years ago by Katharine Eyre
Starry Gordon
Starry Gordon
3 years ago

Actually, Decline and Fall is pretty entertaining, for me anyway; and I like Gibbon’s baroquely Latinate diction. But after a few thousand pages the constant misfortunes of the Romans/Byzantines began to get me down a bit.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
3 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Never read any Tom Clancy, he’s a spy thriller writer, right? It’s been quite a while since I read any spy thrillers, the Harry Palmer series by Len Deighton was the last, which I like a lot. I should probably give them a go again, but 900 pages sounds heavy going!

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
3 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

He writes Thrillers, I think mostly with some kind of spy/military/intelligence theme. He is very good at weaving various narratives together. Very macho, more men like his stuff than women.

Rosy Martin
Rosy Martin
3 years ago

Edward Gibbon apparently said that ‘ he early developed the habit of reading and would not exchange it for ‘all the treasures of India ‘. I think that’s as good a summary as any….it is one of life’s most healing pleasures.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Rosy Martin

Plato said books were bad because people no longer had to remember, and think for themselves. “They will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.”
He was sort of correct, but a couple thousand years off – he really was talking of Google and how much ignorance it causes by making people able to gather info without understanding.

Claire D
Claire D
3 years ago

That might be true some of the time with some people. Do I look at, say David Starkey, and think to myself “he is of a higher status than me” ? No, I don’t, I look at him and think, he knows more than I do about the Tudors, I’d like to have a chat with him about . . .I don’t know . . . Thomas More or the Earl of Essex for example. I don’t think ooh he thinks he’s so clever with all those books of his, he needs bringing down a peg or two.

In other words it takes a certain type of person to play the status game you describe, usually someone with low self esteem who goes round feeling resentful and envious of other people’s reading habits and hard work.

Last edited 3 years ago by Claire D
Johnny Sutherland
Johnny Sutherland
3 years ago

Contrary to some of the commenters I agree with Sara. I’d also like to throw in visual arts. I like a wide range of painting styles but what I can’t stand is what appears to be a modern trend when the explanatory blurb for a painting is larger than the canvas used for the painting. Otherwise, obviously, you will not “understand” the painting.

This, to me, is sort of the point being made in this article.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago

You nailed me there.
Hey, anyone care to list the most important book you can think of? List below.
Mine, The Life of My Choice Paperback – January 1, 1980 by Wilfred Thesiger

Claire D
Claire D
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I like Thesiger too, but for the list it has to be Middlemarch.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Try some Gavin Maxwell – I held a baby otter a couple weeks ago, at a wildlife refuge I was at doing a construction bid, and I thought of Gavin very much.

Claire D
Claire D
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Thanks, I will.
Must just add Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson, for an insight into the lives of many of our ancestors.

Last edited 3 years ago by Claire D
Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I love Thesiger, but my favourite book would have to be Auberon Waugh’s diaries, because they make me laugh so much.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Waugh was a Commando in WWII, a rather high up one! Thesiger was SAS, I have a number of his books signed from when T would give talks at the Royal Geographic Society. Have you read Gavin Maxwell’s ‘Reed Shaken in the Wind’? Amazing trip he took with Thesiger in the great Iraqi Marshes – a truly fascinating man as well. And how can you beat ‘Arabian Sands’?

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

sorry, Auberon Waugh’s Father, Evelyn was the commando.

Peter Ian Staker
Peter Ian Staker
3 years ago

I think there is probably a pressure on the book industry to justify their existence, now that fewer people read. I agree, if you approach reading thinking that you will “unfreeze your heart” you will probably be disappointed if the writer did not intend this- you would be better off reading some non-fiction. So you have to trust the writer is good enough to know what is worth writing about, and be willing to go along with it. I think what you are worried about is that an obsession will utility will destroy the creative process and the only books that will be published and read are those that can be simply summed up: this will make you feel sad, this will cheer you up etc.

Last edited 3 years ago by Peter Ian Staker
Johannes Kreisler
Johannes Kreisler
3 years ago

“fix hearts and lift souls”

Oh please. One reads books to engage the mind, not to undergo cardiac surgery or to attend Sunday mass.

Val Colic-Peisker
Val Colic-Peisker
3 years ago

Sarah wrote a decent contribution to the old debate of “l’art pour l’art” versus art as a utilitarian pursuit. Thanks Sarah, it was a fun read! The below discussion is mainly about recommending books to each other and disagreeing about dusty old classics. Mostly friendly: not the worst that can happen with debates! My recommendation then, folks: try Stanislaw Lem. He’s a wildly amusing genius and his translator (Polish-English) Michael Kandel is himself truly amazing..

Joanna S
Joanna S
3 years ago

Perhaps if this ‘critic’ read more her own syntax would improve.

Toby Josh
Toby Josh
3 years ago
Reply to  Joanna S

I would like to recommend a comma between “more” and “her”.

‘Just sayin’’

Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
3 years ago

If you want good naval technical history for the 19th and 20th centuries, then anything by Friedman or Ackermann is your first port of call.

Oh, and I swear by Arthur Herman for his one-volume history of the Royal Navy “To Rule the Waves: how the Royal Navy Shaped the Modern World”.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago

Herman got fairly savagely caned for numerous errors in ‘To Rule the Waves’…. including the upside down Union flag on the cover.
Is he up to the standard of N.A.M. Rodger?

Don Corleone
Don Corleone
3 years ago

“It should… It should…” “…those of us in the business of literary criticism…” Ok, well, you should know, I expect. For myself, a mere amateur, I can only observe that the anticipation, consumption and revelation of every book, play, essay, poem, and even article – like this shoddy throwaway – I read is never premeditatedly predicated on the imperative that ‘this must entertain’. Some do, some don’t; but they all leave me that bit more experienced about how someone else thinks, and writes; and that’s always self-improving; even when, as in this case, they only serve to remind me that narrow and narrow-minded prescriptions of what writing is ‘meant for’ by professionals tend overwhelmingly to the trite, sententious and exclusive. Thanks for the memo.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
3 years ago

Well said, Sarah. It’s hard to imagine that the purpose of the vast canon of erotic literature – Tom Jones and the like – was written to lift souls.

Alex James
Alex James
3 years ago

I don’t know if by “literature” this excludes non-fiction, which seems to have been omitted from this article, but of course a reader can gain insight or inspiration from nearly any form of reading. However, if the reader’s intention is self-improvement then caution is always advisable. Who is the self that needs improving? How can the imperfect self improve if it is already flawed? Like pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps to paraphrase Alan Watts. If I select a book hoping to improve myself by reading it then I, the imperfect self have decided the author can improve me. How could I trust my own judgment?

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
2 years ago

Write on.