Desmond Morris’s biography of Beethoven was described by The New York Times reviewer as “Ideal for the general reader.” I wondered: who is this elusive character, the general reader? He or she is obviously not identical to the “general public,” most of whom never read a book and have scarcely heard of Beethoven.
I seldom meet a general reader. All the readers I know seem very particular. There are those who read nothing but deep academic studies on a limited range of subjects, some who stick to history or biography or poetry, and others who read nothing but romances or science fiction. But there are a few, like me, who will read (or try to read) almost anything. Am I a general reader? It’s true that I did read Morris’s book, so I may fit the description. At first it was a slightly depressing thought.
The general reader, presumably, is someone who cannot concentrate on any one thing for long. In my long-ago schooldays this was an accusation I heard from my teachers every day. “A grasshopper mind,” was the phrase they used. Grasshoppers spend their days jumping pointlessly from place to place and making an annoying noise, so the appellation was not a compliment.
The evidence that I am a general reader is damning. A literary detective would cite the bizarre medley of books on the shelves in my study (everything from The Decline of the West to The Penguin Book of Humorous Quotations), to the even more eclectic heap of books beside my bed (thrillers, serious novels, some poetry, non-fiction books about religion and politics). The owner of this literary stew is obviously not a serious person.
Yet we are popular in the publishing world. They aim their trade list titles at us, much as politicians seek out the semi-mythical ‘swing voter.’ The result, in the end, may be rather good. The general reader may be expected to be interested in books (like Morris’s Beethoven biography) that are not highly specialized at one end of the scale, and not complete trash at the other. If we general readers make these serious but accessible books profitable, we must be doing a valuable service. Some of us try to write such books, with varying degrees of success.
Yet I can’t help thinking that the general reader is truly a creature of the nineteenth century rather than the twenty-first. The general reader needs a broad education, and above all he needs time to pick through and appreciate the vast mountain of literature. Not many people are lucky enough to have both these advantages today. It means, first of all, being educated in the literary canon, “The Great Books,” that allow us to share in centuries of culture and wisdom. But The Great Books take a lot of time. We’ve become too specialized and too busy. Professional people need every spare moment just to keep up with the literature of their field.
Fortunately help is at hand in the form of a book, by French psychoanalyst Pierre Bayard. It’s called How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. I haven’t actually read it, but I don’t need to. Just by writing it Bayard has made ignorance respectable. I’ve had some lively conversations about How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read with other people who haven’t read it. In an age when everything is speeded up and nobody has quiet reading time, this book is a therapeutic gift.
Reading has become almost a specialized skill and an intellectual niche. People with no day jobs write books about reading, for Example Phyllis Rose’s The Shelf (2014) in which she recounts the experience of reading every book on one shelf of a large New York Library. This is the reader as intellectual athlete, the reader as a superior being. What was she trying to prove?
In the face of this literary one-upsmanship, I have convinced myself that we general readers have a role to play. We’re not just failed intellectuals. We are the descendants of a great reading tradition. Good for us.