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Reading Writers You Can’t Stand

Over at the New Yorker Maria Bustillos has a nice reflection on reading writers she can’t stand — or that’s how she describes her topic, though I think she’s actually conflating different kinds of reading experience. She begins by claiming, rightly, that “the sensual delight of reading good writing, all by itself . . . is in no way dependent on agreement with the author; consider that it may be possible to find a writer’s work gorgeous even when he is saying something plain awful. There are a number of authors who have this effect on me; for example, I love Evelyn Waugh a lot, though he was a terrific snob and mean as a snake—qualities as evident in his work as they are said to have been in his life.”

Already I think Bustillos is making two very different points. The first is that we can enjoy writing whose point or purpose we disagree with if it’s beautifully written; the second is that we can enjoy writers who are terrible people. Those are different points because terrible people can not only write well, they can also say things that are true. And, to make matters still more complex, truth and falsehood can be mixed in a single poem or story or essay. We can find ourselves switching between deep sympathy and utter alienation.

The most interesting part of Bustillos’s essay is her description of what it’s like for her, as a 21st century American liberal woman, to read Edmund Burke:

I will never be entirely persuaded of his message, but the skill and beauty of his rhetoric have opened the door to many insights for me…. It’s like the most beautiful voice you ever heard, singing a song you can’t stand. There are moments in Burke — many of them — where even a dyed-in-the-wool political liberal can’t help feeling the romantic tug of his arguments: how a modern woman is to approach the old idea of chivalry, for example. He makes this idea sound very beautiful; I find I can’t quite dismiss it out of hand. Complexities are introduced — shades of grey, areas to investigate further.

Reading this passage, I think, “But Burke isn’t really ‘singing a song you can’t stand,’ is he? He’s singing a song you couldn’t stand at first but you are now beginning to appreciate the artfulness of, even if it’s still not quite your thing.” But, no that isn’t quite right, because Bustillos’s response to Burke isn’t purely aesthetic: the beauty of Burke’s language is sufficient to create in her at least partial sympathy with his actual arguments. She’s not “entirely persuaded” — but not utterly alienated either. She “can’t quite dismiss” even Burke’s deep commitment to chivalry “out of hand”: she’s going “to investigate further.”

Her conclusion is lovely:

That we have the means of doing this — of entering into another mind to find all the riches and the perils that may await us there — affords us the possibility of deep pleasure and understanding. Without the ability to travel outside ourselves, all our conversations are in danger of becoming like tennis games consisting entirely of serves, with never a rally in sight. This is a matter of comprehending and containing the trick of beautiful rhetoric, experiencing the workings of a mind entirely unlike your own.

But I want to add even to this commendation a gentle disagreement, because these are not minds “entirely unlike your own,” are they? The beauty of their writing has drawn Bustillos in, and once drawn in, she began to realize that those minds are more like her own than she had previous suspected — that their thoughts are not as alien to her thoughts as our daily political and social discourse would lead us to believe. And that’s one of the most wonderful things about reading.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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