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The Hedonism of Reading Good Books

“I hate to read new books.”

So begins William Hazlitt’s essay “On Reading Old Books [1].” The title will remind readers of C.S. Lewis’s similarly named but much more well known essay “On the Reading of Old Books [2],” which originally served as the introduction to a translation of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. But beyond the general injunction to read old masters, the two essays have very little (though more than nothing) in common. Where Lewis focuses on the dangers of contemporary prejudice and the atmospheric contamination, as it were, of false assumptions—both of which we can mitigate in effect by temporarily displacing ourselves in time and space through reading—Hazlitt stresses the importance of older writers. He does this because (1) there is a greater likelihood that they are worth reading; (2) they are essential to the personal development of the individual; and (3) they are high-water marks of formal and stylistic virtuosity from which something can be learned despite philosophical disagreement.

First, it is a truism that old books that are still read have stood the test of time (there are others that deserve to have done so but have been forgotten; that is a different story, touched on here [3]). As Hazlitt says, with nice understatement, “I do not think altogether the worse of a book for having survived the author a generation or two.” As Lewis would write over a century later, “A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it.” But where Lewis emphasizes ignorance, Hazlitt stresses the calm and serenity of opening an old volume: “[T]he dust and smoke and noise of modern literature have nothing in common with the pure, silent air of immortality.” This may sound romantic, or even absurd, but I confess to having had precisely this sensation myself on many occasions.

There are, of course, good new books and bad old books. But the sheer volume of what is published—an issue since the invention of the printing press, even if more insistent now given the rise of new technologies—makes the work of winnowing wheat from chaff difficult, and time is finite. (Lest I be misunderstood, I think this a happy development in most respects, although attended by some of the challenges Hazlitt notes. Indeed, without such technologies, Hazlitt would have had access to far fewer books, as would we.) As Hazlitt remarks:


[I]n…turning to a well-known author, there is not only an assurance that my time will not be thrown away, or my palate nauseated with the most insipid or vilest trash,—but I shake hands with, and look an old, tried, and valued friend in the face,—compare notes, and chat the hours away.

Can a value be assigned to nurturing an intellectual friendship, albeit a somewhat imaginary one, with a Vergil, a Shakespeare, an Augustine? Surely not. I shall return to this point below.

Hazlitt’s perspective is, then, somewhat different from Lewis’, whose main concern is the characteristic “blindness” of every age as with respect to its own faults (“Every age…is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period”). Where Hazlitt is pragmatic and personal, Lewis focuses on the ethical and the social. Both are correct.

Second, Hazlitt gives a beautiful description of the way in which our early reading can help to form who we are for the rest of our lives. The books we love while young contribute to our development as individuals in no more imaginary a way than learning to ride a bike or the first day of middle school does. The enjoyment they yield, in other words, is not empty: these books play a part in the formation of our memories, the pattern we discern as our lives unfold, and therefore help to constitute our very selves. Hazlitt says this explicitly: “In reading a book which is an old favourite with me (say the first novel I ever read) I not only have the pleasure of imagination and of a critical relish of the work, but the pleasures of memory added to it.” In fact, re-reading one’s favorite books can serve in some ways as dreamlike time travel, or even an otherwise impossible bilocation, in which we can—for a brief moment—simultaneously put one foot in our past and another in our present. As he puts it:


It recalls the same feelings and associations which I had in first reading it, and which I can never have again in any other way. Standard productions of this kind are links in the chain of our conscious being. They bind together the different scattered divisions of our personal identity. They are land-marks and guides in our journey through life. They are pegs and loops on which we can hang up, or from which we can take down, at pleasure, the wardrobe of a moral imagination, the relics of our best affections, the tokens and records of our happiest hours.

And yet the present remains the present, to which past is prologue. Hazlitt has no interest in speculating on what it would be like to go back to one’s youth with the wisdom of experience, as Uncle Rico wishes to do in Napoleon Dynamite. In fact, part of the gratification of re-reading, say, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (which in Hazlitt’s day was not only not old but not in existence—we must remember that what counts as “old” is on a sliding scale) is to be fetched back to a world without this “burthen,” as Hazlitt puts it. “A sage philosopher,” Hazlitt says, “who was not a very wise man, said, that he should like very well to be young again, if he could take his experience along with him.” (Compare Uncle Rico’s “Don’t you ever wish you could go back with all the knowledge you have now?”) Hazlitt protests, with a touch of melancholy, that it is a mistake to try to transmogrify youth into adulthood or introduce adulthood into youth. “This ingenious person did not seem to be aware, by the gravity of his remark, that the great advantage of being young is to be without this weight of experience, which he would fain place upon the shoulders of youth, and which never comes too late with years.” The peculiarities of youth must be respected and can never be repeated. But the reading of an “old favourite” can, like a game of catch with one’s son, provide an evanescent and plaintive reminder of what it was like to be in the world without having experienced the world.

Thirdly, the best old books are both aesthetic masterpieces and good to think with. Hazlitt recalls obtaining copies of John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France when he was 20. I note in passing that Hazlitt provides perhaps the best and briefest response to the supposed problem of Milton’s supposed “sympathy for the Devil,” that is, his making Satan a sometimes attractive figure: “Milton has there drawn, not the abstract principle of evil, not a devil incarnate, but a fallen angel. This is the Scriptural account, and the poet has followed it…. Let us hear no more then of this monkish cant, and bigotted outcry for the restoration of the horns and tail of the devil!”

The incident to which Hazlitt refers must have occurred around 1798. Though Paradise Lost surely would have been counted as old by this point, Burke’s Reflections had only recently appeared in 1790. It was therefore still relatively new, all things considered, even when Hazlitt wrote this essay a couple of decades after his first encounter, and certainly at the point of the encounter itself. “Old,” then, has a rather loose and inclusive meaning, here apparently signifying “old to me now from my present perspective, within the scope of my span of life”—another reminder of the almost exclusively personal and particular focus of this essay. (In fact, Hazlitt ends by contradicting his first sentence toto caelo in his final remark: “I should also like to read the last new novel (if I could be sure it was so) of the author of Waverley:—no one would be more glad than I to find it the best!” “The author of Waverley” was Sir Walter Scott—Hazlitt’s contemporary! When reading his pronouncements, one must not take them too “straight,” lest one forget his wit and the wry self-understanding smile.)

Hazlitt’s comments on the Reflections provide good insight to his mind and the catholicity of his reading. He did not like Burke on politics but he respected him and saw him as a genius. “I took a particular pride and pleasure in [Burke’s Reflections], and read it to myself and others for months afterwards. I had reason for my prejudice in favour of this author. To understand an adversary is some praise: to admire him is more. I thought I did both: I knew I did one.” Of Burke’s style, he remarks, “I said to myself, ‘This is true eloquence: this is a man pouring out his mind on paper.’ All other style seemed to me pedantic and impertinent.” It was a style he described as “forked and playful as the lightning, crested like the serpent,” an evaluation quoted by Russell Kirk in the second chapter of The Conservative Mind [4].

But Hazlitt’s admiration was not limited to Burke’s style. It extended to the style as the servant of his substance. The two are not the same (“I thought myself that an abstract proposition was one thing—a masterly transition, a brilliant metaphor, another”), but neither are they easily disentangled. And while Hazlitt did not agree with the substance as a whole, he could find truths in its parts: “I did not care for his doctrines. I was then, and am still, proof against their contagion; but I admired the author…. I conceived, too, that he might be wrong in his main argument, and yet deliver fifty truths in arriving at a false conclusion.”

Books like Burke’s could provide, in other words, the pleasure of a good and rigorous argument, one not divorced from rhetorical niceties that could be revered even if they outstripped his ability to imitate them.

What Hazlitt is really driving at, it seems to me, is the obligation of the thinking individual to form a personal canon of favorite authors and texts. Just as we differ as individuals, our personal canons will differ. But we should all nevertheless have one, and not take anyone else’s word for it. It is to be made, not borrowed. The reasons given are frankly somewhat epicurean: the pleasure of time well spent; the pleasure of memory; the pleasure of watching a master at work—and it bears repeating that we should include some masters whose ideas we do not like.

But this hedonism, such as it is, makes its mark on the meaning of a life, infusing it with a richness that can be had at no dearer a price than that of a library card, which is to say, it can be had for free by anyone who is not so foolish as to fail to go after it. As Hazlitt says, “To have lived in the cultivation of an intimacy with such works, and to have familiarly relished such names, is not to have lived quite in vain.”

E.J. Hutchinson is associate professor of Classics and director of the Collegiate Scholars Program at Hillsdale College. His research focuses on the reception of classical literature in late antiquity and early modernity.

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "The Hedonism of Reading Good Books"

#1 Comment By FL Transplant On August 8, 2018 @ 10:57 pm

I’m not o sure that a library card is the price of admission to the books you’re writing about. My community library is a great one for a town of its size, and is a member of a county-wide library consortium with the catalog of a half-dozen libraries jointly on-line and all books readily available–if the one you want is at a different library the daily circulating van will deliver it from whichever library it’s in.

But while there are walls of James Patterson, Jodi Picoult, and John Grisham there are almost no classics available. To get those you’ll have to go beyond the county-wide system through interlibrary loan, head over to Barnes and Noble’s, or try one of the used book stores that dot the area. A final alternative is the one I generally use–buy an electronic version for your Nook/Kindle/iPad. Classics are generally available for a modest price–they’re long out of copyright, and there’s so little cost for the production of an electronic version. But for this alternative you have to be willing to give up holding a physical book, and making notes in the margin, highlighting, etc(It is possible to do those with some ereaders, but it’s much more clumsy than with a physical book.)

#2 Comment By Jon On August 9, 2018 @ 10:24 am

As with old literature so it goes with the visual arts. As we look upon the frescoes, oils and sculpture, the third quality “high-water marks of formal and stylistic virtuosity” becomes apparent.

And yet they are not merely pretty things serving to decorate a church apse or a hallway within a Medici mansion. These were painted and sculpted with passion. Giorgio Vasari in his magnum opus “Life of the Artists” points out the importance of pathos. Paintings, for instance, should be spirited. A work that it true to form but lacking in purpose or intent remains an empty vessel devoid of animacy. Of course, he is quick to mention that an ill-gotten composition that is poorly drafted and executed in such a way that it reveals a profound lack of skill defeats the spirit invested in it. However, the inner mind of its creator must remain separate from the viewer’s conviction. And it is for these viewers that he sacrifices his time offering his skill and love for beauty that through the created image inspires the parishioners’ piety and also brings to life the great myths of antiquity.

And as with old books that have withstood the ravages of time, these works shaped by the hands of Donatello, Luca della Robbia, Lorenzo Ghiberti, (also, including the architectural wonders of Filippo Brunelleschi) and the better known Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo offer us not only a window to the past and inspiration for today’s creations but also instruction on how to paint and sculpt and design structures. Their work and their lives continue to offer us a passageway to our own artistic endeavors.

#3 Comment By TJ Martin On August 9, 2018 @ 10:30 am

Perhaps Mr Hutchinson might want to peruse the definition of the word ‘ Hedonism ‘ before using it erroneously as he has here . re;

Hedonism – the pursuit of pleasure; sensual self-indulgence.

Suffice it to say the reading of good books is the polar opposite of ‘ Hedonism ‘ . Edifying , Educational , Instructional etc yes !

But hedonistic most definitely not .

Reading in the pursuit of hedonistic pleasure would imply one is reading Romance Novels , Trash Fiction , Conspiracy Theory based books , revisionist history etc … not ‘ Good Books ‘ !

#4 Comment By mrscracker On August 9, 2018 @ 12:23 pm

I make good use of my library card weekly but you know, it gets more& more difficult to find older books on the shelves these days. Libraries make room for what’s new & popular and may evict books that are no longer politically correct-especially in the children’s section. Check out the discarded books that libraries offer for sale to the public & you’ll see what I mean. It’s a great place to purchase classic children’s books.

#5 Comment By Anonymous On August 9, 2018 @ 7:29 pm

The nonprofit Gutenberg Library has all the public domain classics, available for free and 100% legal download to your phone or ebook reader.

#6 Comment By Anonymous On August 11, 2018 @ 5:04 am

What is your tone in the article? Who can answer it better than the author right! I would really like to know. Thanks

#7 Comment By chucho On August 11, 2018 @ 9:55 am

Library books are usually soiled and marked up by half-wits still believing they are the geniuses their 8th grade teacher told them they were.

Shun e-readers and buy real books. Used paperback classics are very easily found cheap and in good condition at library sales, garage sales, thrift stores, used bookstores and online.

#8 Comment By Jon On August 11, 2018 @ 11:35 am

I’ll listen to any argument for reading classics. But, honestly, I think you got it wrong. There is hedonism in foregoing the obligation to support a new generation of writers, but that is more than counterbalanced by the effort required to understand what made an author current in his/her day and to take the time to re-mold one’s own expectations.

It is hard to read an author who is not flattering your prejudices than to read someone who is up on all the latest beliefs.

#9 Comment By Charming Billy On August 11, 2018 @ 1:23 pm

As a librarian I must, to my chagrin, report that “weeding”, the removal of books from a library collection when they become worn or no longer circulate frequently (that is, when they become interesting) is considered an indispensable part of the librarian’s job. Most public library collections are heavily weeded, which is why they consist mainly of books that are frequently checked out, such as fiction blockbusters and diet books. The classics are retained by wise librarians but considerations of space and public demand often make it difficult to maintain a good collection of even the worthiest classics. I have never felt political rectitude enters into public library acquisitions and “deacquisitions” (to use a bit of barbarous trade jargon). Public libraries buy plenty of right wing political screeds by the likes of Ann Coulter to meet public demand. But you probably won’t find anything by Burke or Kirk, simply because they don’t circulate. The typical left wing librarian (is there any other kind you might ask? Yes, but you have to look to find them — they’re hiding their views from their colleagues) doesn’t even know about these two and wouldn’t recognize them as conservatives even if brought to their attention.

#10 Comment By David Smith On August 11, 2018 @ 2:45 pm

I prowl through thrift stores in search of forgotten books by forgotten authors. And then I liberate them (usually for a dollar or less) and read them.

I often find the half-forgotten classics of past centuries, but the real goal of my pursuit is a category of books which was invented and flourished in the dreadful 20th century: the survivor’s tale of witness to the inhuman atrocities that reached such a peak (so far) in the recent past.

Some books of witness were instant hits and remained so, despite their crushing intensity. Elie Wiesel’s Night describes Auschwitz and his father’s death there. The Diary of Anne Frank is rightly famous, though I myself have never been able to read more than a few opening pages before dissolving in tears. (I think this is because I have a daughter, and the words always come into my head in my daughter’s voice.)

In the mid-range stand works which once were read and discussed, and now dot the dustbins. Whittaker Chambers’ aptly named Witness tells of a man whose soul was driven by his embrace of communism into the vicious underworld of espionage against his country. It becomes a story of redemption, as he rejects his past infatuation and attempts, at enormous personal cost, to warn his countrymen of the ugly reality facing them.

But who now reads Victor Kravchenko? Peter Deriabin? Jan Valtin? Earl Weinstock?…
The truth is always worth telling, even if it never finds an audience. And there is value in seeking out these lost truths. Otherwise, too many lives, too much heroism ends up down the Memory Hole. (More at [6])

#11 Comment By william over On August 13, 2018 @ 10:04 am

But what to make of the younger generation–now called the iGens–who read no books on or offline, and who know nothing of such delights and grandeurs? Then of course there’s the issue of the lack of imagination that follows.

#12 Comment By mrscracker On August 13, 2018 @ 10:49 am

Charming Billy ,
Thank you for your comments & your dedication.

#13 Comment By Mark Kennedy On August 13, 2018 @ 10:18 pm

I don’t know how extensive Charming Billy’s experience as a librarian is, but as someone who was a reference librarian and book selector for twenty-five years I can assure readers here that my colleagues were definitely aware of Edmund Burke and his conservative legacy. If a ‘typical’ librarian in 2018 doesn’t know who Russell Kirk was, it’s highly doubtful this has much to do with personal political leanings; the same individual may well not know who Daniel Bell and Lionel Trilling were either. Librarians are ‘left’ in the broad, general sense that public libraries themselves embody Enlightenment ideals on universal public education, the importance of free and equal access to information, etc., rather than counter-Enlightenment reaction to these things. If libraries seem less diligent than they used to be when it comes to preserving cultural history, if their acquisition and weeding decisions are becoming too heavily influenced by circulation statistics, address complaints to those cost-conscious conservatives who are hostile to the notion of tax-supported public service to begin with: their relentless assault on library budgets are a matter of public record.

As for the wisdom of not confining one’s reading to the current publishing year’s offerings, I’m highly sympathetic. My own recommendations, if anyone here wants them, would include Karl Jaspers’ Way to Wisdom (English translation 1954); Irving M. Copi’s Introduction to Logic (1968); Randall Collins’ The Sociology of Philosophies (1998); Margaret S. Archer’s Being Human: the Problem of Agency (2000); Zygmunt Bauman’s The Individualized Society (2001); and Jean-Louis Dessalles’ Why We Talk: the Evolutionary Origins of Language (English translation 2007). If you prefer fiction and live near a large reference library, see if its collection contains any of Oxford University Press’s national literature-themed short story collections published in the 1960s and early 1970s (title search ‘Arabic,’ ‘Czech and Slovak,’ ‘Hungarian,’ ‘Romanian,’ ‘Yugoslav’–these are the ones I know).