It pains me to think back over these years. When I first met her I cannot exactly recall (I had heard her name before I met her). I think I saw her first walking away from the library. In those days, she had that beauty you see here and there: simple, but well-tuned to the season and what was fashionable. Somehow she was both comfortable-looking and alluring.
I often met her in coffee shops—and book shops, of course. She introduced me to cultured and thoughtful books, as well as fun books—The Screwtape Letters, Durant’s histories, Watership Down, and things of that sort. As a young man anything seemed better than insufferable classes discussing the likes of John Knowles’ A Separate Peaceor another course in which the massacre at Wounded Knee was trotted out. Her suggestions captivated me, as did she, and early on her recommendations seemed good. I was intrigued by her history and background (which eluded my complete discovery) and her seemingly endless and indiscriminate thirst for more books and ideas about everything.
I was told that she was obsessed with the Bible once—that was the kind of family she came from, my friends said. When I met her, although she was well-versed in plays and many novels, she mostly fancied nature writing—from Thoreau to Annie Dillard—and popular philosophy (think Gödel, Escher, Bach and—of course—Gibran’s The Prophet). After we got to know one another, then came all those books on eastern religion and philosophy, if there is a distinction—are not the two always one? I would sit there with some Penguin Classic and look over pages printed in Harmondsworth to see her tearing through the Tao of Pooh or something from Adler’s unceasing stream of Great Books summaries. It led to amusing conversations and passionate arguments.
Then her taste began more clearly to diverge from mine. It wasn’t just that she seemed always to be clutching Vogue or some home décor magazine, or that she read more and more online. Her forays in eastern philosophy meandered into explorations of “alternative Christianities,” which the books I was reading called Gnosticism and heresy. Shakespeare’s sonnets yielded to cheap paperback romances. What used to be “beach reading” became for her a serious matter. She followed the talk-show host recommendations religiously, and went to reading groups to discuss pulp as if it had some merit. Or maybe she was just going for the drinks and the attention, and to see what everyone else was reading—she always knew what everyone else was reading, everyone.
Again, don’t mistake what I am saying: I like pulp now and again. But there is a world of difference between The Thirty-Nine Steps and The Bridges of Madison County, or between Riders of the Purple Sage and Brokeback Mountain; and now there is a world between us.
We saw one another a lot over this past Christmas holiday—which she now calls just “the holidays.” She was still attractive, in a way, but there was a sad darkness under her eyes; an energetic weariness circled her; something jittery, something angry lurked about in her expressions. I see that surface-level agitation in her coffee-shop soul mates: too much time reconstructing home pages, too much time shooting Droid-delivered barbs, too much time spent raking the first 150 words of an Internet posting for more things to be mad about, too much buzz shoved into every moment so that there really was no more meaningful time left. Just being with them left me nervous and short of breath; I could barely keep up with all the things, the very attractive things they had: pods, pads, phones, and other I-centered whatnot—with whole collections of books and music and information stored away somewhere, supposedly; it was, you may say, stimulating to be with them, but it made me feel a deep, sad longing within.
How we fell out of love is not entirely clear. I never would have thought it possible. Our acquaintance had stretched back to my youth. As I said, I heard her name before I had even met her. Older folks, glancing up from the pages of their Reader’s DigestAnthologies, especially spoke well of her. That is part of the reason I kept up the relationship for so long, against my instincts. Yet, I can now no longer deny the obvious. I do not love her and she, well, she is cruel and promiscuous. You see, it wasn’t just me that she met on the steps of the library or by the bookshelves. It wasn’t just in “my sort” of coffee shop that she coyly chatted and argued. She was everywhere and with everyone, and at some point she lost all sense of standards.
I suppose that is why they call her the Common Reader.
It is my suspicion that some of you know her. Some of you may have even felt about her the same way I did. And let us be frank, we would not be Christians if we did not have hope for her. So perhaps it was harsh for me to say that I no longer love her. I hope she will regain what she lost, if one can ever regain what is lost.
Still, that whole time that I knew her, there was another: her sister. Her sister was not striking to me then. I had actually already met her. She was tolerable, I thought, but not handsome enough to tempt me. She had—and still has—a kind of reserve. When I was younger, and with her sister, I would have called it aloofness or even elitism. Her patience, however, has revealed my ignorance. The whole time that I trotted around with the Common Reader, learning about “the seven great ideas” or the distinction between the “Tao” and “Te” (let alone the “Wu wei”—a concept requiring little effort to master), her sister was ever telling me about things like the cardinal virtues or recounting the battle of Thermopylae, or just chuckling quietly in a nook as she read again The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin.
At first, I found her reading selections quaint, but over time I have come to see them as inspiring—in the way that old tales are. Nothing she suggested as “good reading” ever seemed to be smart and fashionable like her sister’s choices, but nevertheless, I could often find the books, especially in the last days of the old bookshops, and they were usually quite affordable, as they were so little valued. When I was a graduate student at a Catholic university, whole carts of her favorite books were being thrown away or sold for half a dollar. I remember taking her lists of recommendations and always finding something: Belloc, Chesterton, Dickens, Newman, Johnson—these and other treasures (for now I see them as such) were being cast off and without her recommendation. Like the cartloads of misdelivered missives in the Dead Letter Office of Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrievener,” they would, with ironic cruelty, have been consigned truly to become pulp.
As I have become further acquainted with the other sister—older, as I discovered, although perpetually youthful—I have found that she is quite generous towards novelties that I associated with the younger sister. She is cautious, of course, about things like digital books. She laments the passing of the old book shops, but makes selective use of the Internet markets (supporting, of course, the remnant of little shops). She holds no truck with the more sordid sort of reading that her sister revels in. And yet, she has been generous—with her views, with her time, and with her vision of what things could be like. From her I have learned about books sewn in signatures, and who were the finest illustrators of children’s classics, and that certain things were best read by candlelight. Even though she is so very quiet, I have always felt much more full of life after an evening spent on one story with her, than a night wrestling over a hundred sterile arguments in a café with her sister.
In time, the proud brow and penetrating glances seemed to vanish. What I saw clearly was her vivid color and undiminished vigor, and when we met I found her light and pleasing. She it was who taught me poetry: first by introducing sea shanties and nursery rhymes, then Lear and Frost, Keats and Coleridge, and then the Psalms. I never even considered the Psalms as poetry—Adler did not discuss this in his book How to Read a Book. And the wondrous thing was this: she did not just read what was in front of her; no, she chanted and sang from memory, and even when she stopped singing, the enchantment of her song left me spellbound.
And so, here we are, reader of the luminous page. I must come clean. The older sister is the one I love and to her I dedicate this column, in which my friends and I will bring to your attention those worthy titles that give stuff and substance to life—the countless good books that one should read, regardless of what is fashionable, smart, or common.
I introduce you to the Civilized Reader.