Annus Horribilior

As 2001 - the first year that belongs fully to the third millennium - draws to an end, there is this uncontrollable need to sum it up.

As 2001 - the first year that belongs fully to the third millennium - draws to an end, there is this uncontrollable need to sum it up. Where to place it on the spectrum between annus mirabilis, a wonderful year, or annus horribilis, a terrible year?

Let's check the options: Traditionally, and oddly, annus mirabilis is thought to be 33 C.E., the year Christ died. In more recent times, John Dryden called 1667, the year of a naval victory over the Dutch - and a year of the aftermath of the plague - annus mirabilis in a poem so entitled. And to Philip Larkin, it was 1963, in a shorter poem so entitled: "Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three / (which was rather late for me) / Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban / And the Beatles' first LP."

Annus horribilis, on the other end of the qualitive spectrum, was 1992, according to Elizabeth II, as that was the year that Prince Charles and Princess Diana decided to split up. The year 2001, by all criteria, is probably closer to the horribilis than to mirabilis. Maybe we should settle for annus horribilior, a more terrible year, as we cannot at this moment be sure that it already was annus horribilissimus, a most terrible year. The worst is yet to come, so it seems.

Bad years cause one to rethink one's values and beliefs. And as my values and beliefs re. international and local terrorism and the economy do not matter much anyway, I decided to reevaluate my beliefs about books and reading. Week after week, on these pages, I find myself preaching about the benefits of books and reading. It is high time to check whether there is any harm in either one.

Rest assured, I am not the first to doubt the value traditionally attached to books and reading. No less of an authority than Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) wrote extensively about it. Not in his magnum opus ("The World as Will and Representation," 1819, revised edition 1844) which did not sell, much to the author's chagrin, but in a book that became a best-seller when published in 1851, "Parerga and Paralipomena" ("Additions and Omissions"), comprising longer and shorter essays regarded by Schopenhauer to be complementary to his principal work.

Here is Schopenhauer on writers (in the essay "On Authorship and Style," translated by E.F.J. Payne): "First, there are two kinds of authors, those who write for the sake of the subject and those who write for the sake of writing. The latter need money and thus write for money. We recognize them by the way they spin out their thoughts as long as possible and also amplify ideas that are half-true, queer, forced and indefinite. One soon observes that they write in order to fill up paper."

Could it be that he was reading me?

And here he is about books: "It is the same in literature as in life; wherever we turn, we at once encounter the incorrigible rabble of mankind, everywhere present in legions, filling and defiling everything, like flies in summer. Hence the immense number of bad books, these rank weeds of literature, which deprive the wheat of nourishment and choke it. They are, therefore, not merely useless but positively harmful. Nine-tenths or the whole of our present-day literature have no other object than to extract from the pockets of the public a few shillings."

The conclusion is inevitable: "In regard to our reading, the art of not reading is, therefore, extremely important. We should bear in mind that whoever writes for fools always finds a large public. We can never read the bad too little and the good too often. Inferior books are intellectual poison; they ruin the mind. One of the conditions for reading what is good is that we must not read what is bad; for life is too short and time and energy are limited."

But those harsh words are not reserved to bad books only, but to reading in general: "When we read, someone else thinks for us; we repeat merely his mental process. While we are reading, our mind is really only the playground of other people's ideas; and when these finally depart, what remains? The result is that whoever reads very much and almost the entire day, but at intervals, amuses himself with thoughtless pastime, gradually loses the ability to think for himself; just as a man who always rides ultimately forgets how to walk. But such is the case with many scholars; they have read themselves stupid" ("On Reading and Books").

Quote, misquote

Admittedly, Schopenhauer complains, in those very essays, that he is often misquoted, or quoted out of context. But after reading the last paragraph just quoted (No. 291), I put the book away to think a bit for myself. And I thought that without reading quite so much I would not have known what Schopenhauer thinks about reading (quite so much). But I kept on musing, and asked myself whether one can rely on the thoughts of someone who wrote about women (completely with the accepted beliefs of his time): "They are themselves childish, trifling and short-sighted, in a word, are all their lives grown-up children; a kind of intermediate stage between the child and the man, who is a human being in the real sense" ("On Women").

On the other hand, he could have known nothing about women and still make a lot of sense when he writes about books and reading. He certainly knew something about the way of the world: "The world is just a hell and in it, humans beings are the tortured souls on the one hand, and the devils on the other. I suppose I shall have to be told again that my philosophy is cheerless and comfortless because I tell the truth, whereas people want to hear that the Lord has made all things very well. Go to your churches and leave us philosophers in peace!" ("Additional Remarks on the Doctrine of the Suffering of the World").

Is it indeed so cheerless and comfortless? Cheer up, somebody told me. Things could have been worse. So I cheered up, and things immediately got worse. Happy New Year - and a cheerful 2002.