The Reading Life

In an otherwise fine review of the new biography Borges: A Life by Edwin Williamson (Book World, Aug. 29), Michael Dirda erroneously attributes the quote "people say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading" to Jorge Luis Borges. The writer of the passage quoted in the review is the long-neglected biographer, essayist, and critic Logan Pearsall Smith.


Silver Spring, Md.

Michael Dirda replies:

Yes, this is absolutely correct. Borges does say something very close to this, however, and my once fabled memory somehow confused the two quotations. Worse yet, I actually collect Logan Pearsall Smith's books and own several copies of Trivia, his collection of observations on life -- and books.

Reading It His Way

In his review of Mark Edmundson's Why Read? (Book World, Aug. 29), Jonathan Yardley contends that in the end, the essence of Edmundson's argument is just another form of consumerism in the context of a current university ethos that endlessly caters to student demands. "I'm for me" is the subliminal message of this book, says the reviewer. Edmundson sees self-discovery and self-fulfillment as the chief purposes of a liberal arts education. This, to Yardley, smacks of "self-centeredness." According to Edmundson, books can be called major and canonical when "over time they provide existing individuals live options that will help them change for the better."

Yardley opines that Edmundson seems not to grasp that great literature, in itself, turns us outward toward a world rather than toward ourselves. He says that to see literature -- Shakespeare, Emerson, Proust et al. -- as offering a game plan for life is "scarcely to see literature at all."

I beg to differ. Harold Bloom, in his How to Read and Why, which I consider to be the classic exegesis of "reading for life," says the strongest motive for deep reading of "traditional canon" is the search for a "difficult pleasure." What we read of major books is the fodder for adding richness and relevance in our own lives. When we learn "how" to read, we glean insights about the outside world that position us better to understand what goes on around us: "King Lear" -- sibling rivalry, a father's broken heart; Vanity Fair -- fleeting societal glory, lasting consequences of moral turpitude; Don Quixote -- the human comedy; The Education of Henry Adams -- all of the above. The message that Edmundson imparts to his students and his reading audience is undoubtedly to turn inward but not geared toward solipsism as Yardley would have it. When we ask, after an encounter with great literature, "Can I live it?" -- it is another step toward enlightened self-awareness. In the sense of getting beyond the "feel good" rhetoric of the day and finding guiding parameters for life (as Dr. Johnson would have it -- clearing your mind of cant), Edmundson is right on target.


Laurel, Md.

In reviewing Mark Edmundson's book, Jonathan Yardley perpetuates a view of reading and of a liberal-arts education that to me seems quaintly narrow and outdated. He and Edmundson hold that historians, poets, novelists, painters and composers have a monopoly on creating works suitable as candidates for the canon, the body of thought approved for an education that does more than make people into better consumers.

In Edmundson and Yardley's view, nowhere does science -- even the science created and communicated by great stylists and great thinkers -- enter the picture. As a way of organizing and evaluating truths, including truths about ourselves and our relation to worlds ranging from the distant past to the distant future, the scientific world view has no equal. It can be every bit as powerful, as enlightening and as inspiring as is great art, but in addition it reveals dimensions of understanding that complement and enrich the great achievements of literature and the arts.

Educators, literary critics and intellectuals cannot continue to claim that the humanities and the social sciences suffice to prepare individuals to live a fulfilling, meaningful life that engages us with the world. It is high time that the deep insights of physics, cosmology, geology, evolution, economics and all the other great branches of science take their place along with the masterworks of music, fiction, painting and history in liberal-arts curricula and in the books and articles that readers should take seriously.


Distinguished Professor of Geology

Univ. of California, Davis, Ca.

Fish Story

I was pleased to see the article on Julio Cortazar (Book World, Aug. 22), but dismayed to find one glaring error. The title character of Cortazar's story "Axolotl" is not, as Thomas Colchie states, "a strange tropical fish," but an amphibian -- specifically, as the second page of the story sets forth, "the larval stage (provided with gills) of a species of salamander of the genus Ambystoma."


Silver Spring, Md.

After Catullus

Michael Dirda's review of the Collected Poems of Donald Justice (Book World, Aug. 15) praised his economy of comic effect in the lines "Weep, all you girls/ Who prize good looks and song./ Mack, the canary, is dead."

Perhaps he prefers modern brevity to the longer poem by Catullus which begins "Lugete, o Veneris Cupidinesque" -- Time for mourning, o Loves and Cupids" about the death of his girl's pet sparrow, which concludes, after describing the charm of the bird, "meae puellae/ flendo turgiduli rubent ocelli" -- "my girl's eyes are heavy and red with weeping now."

I am sure Justice was aware of the precedent, and this is his modern, terse descant on the famous original.


Washington, D.C.

Michael Dirda replies:

I'm sorry if I gave the impression that the sorrowful lines about Mack made up an entire poem. I was merely citing representative or favorite bits and pieces from Donald Justice. As I say in the review, a good deal of Justice's masterly work is inspired by other poems and poets, and I didn't mention all of them. "Little Elegy" continues for four more tercets and is plainly marked "After Catullus." May I add that it is gratifying to realize that there are readers of Book World who know and remember their Latin?

Giving the Dancer His Due

In Rick Whitaker's review of Deborah Jowitt's Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance (Book World, Aug. 15), he writes that Jerome Robbins was "widely and bitterly disliked." Robbins and I were not buddies, but we knew each other from 1969 until I retired from American Ballet Theater as wardrobe mistress in 1990. I used to hear about his rehearsals, but my association with him was not as a dancer. He was always warm and friendly, and I admired him greatly. I feel that writing that he was widely and bitterly disliked is very harsh and prejudicial.


Chevy Chase, Md.

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