Georg Brandes: Why should we read?

GEORG BRANDES – A few years ago several European newspapers offered prizes for a list of the best one hundred books for a first-class library. The answers poured in: the Bible and “Robinson Crusoe,” Homer and Horace, Dante and Shakespeare, Holberg and Oehlenschläger, Goethe and Mickiewitz, Racine and Pascal, Arany and Petöfi, Cervantes and Calderón, Bjørnson and Ibsen, Tegnér and Runeberg, — each list characteristic of the country and the individual taste of the correspondent.

It is childish to suppose that a hundred books can be named as those which are the best for each and every one.

The simplest experience of the world proves that a work of great excellence may deeply move one person, while it leaves another untouched; and that a book which has influenced one strongly in one’s youth may lose such influence over one’s later years. There is practically nothing that every man can read at every time.

This fact is not particularly evident, of course, for the simple reason that nowadays very few people can be said to read at all, or enjoy reading, or get any good out of it. Out of a hundred persons able to read, ninety generally read nothing but newspapers, — a species of reading which demands no exertion. Most people, for that matter, read without any particular attentiveness. Perhaps they select reading-matter which does not deserve any particular attention. What wonder, then, that they forget what they read? Everyone will recall such remarks as the following: “There’s no use talking to me about this book or that book, — I must have read it, I suppose, some years ago; but I have the unfortunate faculty of forgetting everything I read.” And many people, after all, are not accustomed to understand fully. They are like young people reading books in foreign languages, who neglect to refer to the dictionary for words they do not understand; they infer them from the sense, — so they say; that is, they understand half, and are content with that.

In the case of works, the nature of which is not intended to be grasped by the intellect, as, for example, in lyric poetry, readers generally relinquish beforehand all idea of understanding exactly what the author means. An acquaintance of mine, in a company of ladies, once tried the experiment of reading aloud Goethe’s The God and the Bayadere, beginning each verse with the last line, and reading upwards. The rhymes fell without intermission, all the melody of the verses was retained — and every one was charmed with the following:

“Then by her with grace is the nosegay bestowed.
Well skilled in its mazes the sight to entrance.
Thecymbal she hastens to play for the dance.
And this house is love’s abode.”

Reflecting a little upon this and similar phenomena, one readily finds oneself raising the questions:

  • Why should we read?
  • What should we read?
  • How should we read?

It is neither superfluous nor idle to raise these questions. I had accepted invitations several times to the home of a well-to-do family enjoying a good position abroad, — a household which took a certain standing in the artistic life of a capital city, — when it struck me one day that I had never seen any book-case or book-shelves in the house. In reply to my query, I was told that they had no book-case, nor any books, except the two or three that lay on the sitting-room table. “But you read, or have read a good deal?” I asked. “Oh, yes,” was the answer; “we travel a good deal, as you know, and in the course of the year we buy a great many books; but we always leave them behind in the net,” — meaning the nets of the railway carriages. And, by way of explanation: “ You see, one never reads a book more than once.”

I should have caused great astonishment, I suppose, had I replied that in the domain of reading — if in no other — it is regarded as a changeless rule that one time is no time at all, that a man who restricts himself to one reading of a good book knows little about it. The books I value I have frequently read more than ten times; indeed, in some cases I could not possibly say how many times. One does not really know a book until one knows it almost by heart.

It is a good thing, too, if one has the means, to own one’s books. There are people who do not own any books, although they have the means. I was once invited, abroad, to the house of a certain Maecenas, — a man whose art collections are worth considerably more than a million, — and when I had viewed his pictures, I said: “Now I should like to see the books. Where are they?” He replied, somewhat testily: “I do not collect books.” He had none.

There are people who are content, as to books, with the provision afforded them by circulating libraries, — a sorry method at the best. It is a sure sign of failing culture and poor taste when at every watering-place in a great country expensively dressed women are invariably seen each with a greasy novel from a circulating library in her hand. These ladies, who would be ashamed to borrow a dress, or wear second-hand clothes, do not hesitate to economize in book-buying. As a result, they read one novel after another, and the last supplants all knowledge of those that have gone before.

The man who replied “I do not collect books,” saw no necessity for reading. He belonged to the wealthy bourgeois class, and men of that class rarely have the time and the concentration for reading anything but newspapers. Outside the ranks of scholars, a strong and passionate love for reading is felt, in the main, only by those who have neither the time nor the means for it, — the lower middle classes, artisans, and workmen. Among these latter there is still to be found that thirst for education which distinguished the wealthy bourgeois classes a hundred years ago, though it was so quickly slaked.

Why should we read?

Why should we read? is therefore the question that requires an answer first.

I do not overestimate the knowledge that can be acquired through reading. In many cases it is necessarily only a poor apology for direct knowledge of the world and of life. It is of more use to travel widely than to read detailed and comprehensive descriptions of travels. You learn to know men better by observing them in real life than by investigating them in books. I will go still further, and say that sculptures, paintings, and drawings, when they are the work of the greatest artists, are profoundly more instructive than the great majority of books. Michael Angelo, Titian, Velázquez, Rembrandt, have taught me more concerning humanity than whole libraries of books.

Books can at best present only a theory. A doctor must study his case; he cannot obtain all his knowledge by reading, and neither can books teach us anything unless we learn also from life. If we have no knowledge of mankind, we cannot enjoy even a novel. We are not in a position to judge whether it gives a true or a false picture of things as they are.

As proof of this we need only recall the many foolish remarks with which in the course of the year one hears good books dismissed. “Nobody would feel or act like that,” is the off-hand verdict of one person or another who has known only a small circle of people, and never understood anything of what was going on in the minds of those around him. Such persons term a book poor and unreal because it happens to be outside the reality with which they themselves happen to be acquainted, — a reality which is to actual reality what a duck-pond is to the ocean.

We are not to believe, then, that we can attain to any wisdom simply by devouring books. Many qualifications are necessary merely to understand and make one’s own the fraction of wisdom that a good book may contain, — qualifications derived from life.

Cover -Georg Brandes, On ReadingOn the other hand, it is also true that books have certain advantages which men have not.

They set thoughts in motion, — which men seldom do. They are silent when questions are not asked of them; men are seldom so discreet. Recall how often you have received visits from intrusive, troublesome people! Yet the seven thousand or eight thousand volumes in my study have never been a trouble to me, often a pleasure. And books are seldom so inane as people. One feels frequently like applying to the mass of humanity those words of Goethe: “If they were books, I would not read them.”

If I may be permitted an exceedingly trite observation, we ought also to read so as to add to our own experience those of other men, greater and more competent than ourselves. We ought to read because in science the work and investigation of centuries is presented to us in a clear, condensed form, and because in literature we meet with a peculiar beauty and with beauty-loving personalities that we can learn to know in no other way. Reading has power to make us keener and more susceptible to the values of things.

Furthermore, if reading affords no more than innocent entertainment, it is worthwhile in the wearisomeness and monotonous exertion of daily life. Reading for pure amusement is by no means to be despised, — so long as it does indeed amuse.

Many will add that we should read to become better men and women, and demand in consequence that stress should be laid upon exhortatory books, at the expense of the rest of literature. Literature must be moral, they will say, and operate morally; books must be sermons. Far be it from me to deny that one may grow better through reading; but whether one does or does not depends chiefly upon how one reads, and we have not yet arrived at that question. As a rule we may say that nothing in the world improves one less than sermonizing books and conversations; nothing is more wearisome, quite apart from the fact that nothing is more inartistic. Just as you cannot train a child by constant scolding, neither can you develop character by everlasting preaching. And the moralizing book is no example. Everyone knows the precepts he was taught in childhood, — not to act selfishly, or think basely; not to lie, or cheat, or injure, or kill. We all know these precepts so well that they make no impression upon us, even when we see them illustrated in poetical compositions. We do not demand of an author that he should work to make us better; that would be laying too heavy a burden upon him. All that we can demand of him is that he work conscientiously, and that he have it in him to teach us something.

Also, we can avoid the books that would debase us. But that leads to our second question: What should we read?

* [Om Læsning; 1899]; From Georg Brandes (1842-1927), On Reading. An Essay, Pieffe Edizioni 2017 (series: MegaMicrón; e-book).

Georg Brandes (1842-1927): Danish critic, scholar, historian and philosopher. “Good European” and – bon gré mal gré – cosmopolitan “missionary of culture”, he was the first to recognize and popularize the peculiar philosophical talent of Friedrich Nietzsche. For his vast, original and varied contribution to literary studies, Georg Brandes is nowadays regarded as “one of the founders of comparative literature.”

See : Morten HØI JENSEN (b. 1987), “Georg Brandes, Good European”, EuropeNow (December 1, 2016), URL : https://www.europenowjournal.org/2016/11/30/georg-brandes-good-european/ ; Alessandro FAMBRINI (b. 1960), “Radicalism and Tradition: Brandes, Ibsen and Nietzsche”, in A. Bourguignon, K. Harrer, J. Stender Clausen (eds.), Grand courants d’échanges intellectuels: Georg Brandes et la France, l’Allemagne, l’Angleterre, Bern: Peter Lang, 2010, p. 97-108. – ISBN: 9783034303040; Régis BOYER (1932-2017), « Georg Brandes (1842-1927), « le père de la littérature comparée » », Revue de littérature comparée, 2013/2 (No 346), p. 135-144. URL : https://www.cairn-int.info/abstract-E_RLC_346_0135–georg-brandes-1842-1927-the-father.htm ; “Georg Brandes” in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georg_Brandes ; Svend Erik LARSEN, “Georg Brandes”, in The Routledge Companion to World Literature ed. Theo D’haen , David Damrosch and Djelal Kadir (Abingdon: Routledge, 14 set 2011 ), accessed 14 feb 2018 , Routledge Handbooks Online.

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