A Gentleman’s Reading List

Sensible answers to the questions of modern manhood.
July 17 2013 2:32 PM

Do I Have to Read My Friend’s Novel?

What should a gentleman read instead?

Please send your questions for publication to gentlemanscholarslate@gmail.com. (Questions may be edited, or invented.)

Troy Patterson.
Troy Patterson

Photo by Christina Paige

Dear Gentleman Scholar,

As time passes, I am decreasingly able to accomplish some things desired due to the imposition of those many things required. I don't begrudge this, but it does make me think of using my time more wisely than I did in my 20s or 30s. (Who said, "I have wasted time and now time doth waste me"?) Might you recommend a selection of books you feel are required reading for a gentleman of our era?

Thanks for writing. Thanks for reading. Thanks for giving me an opportunity to endorse the complete works of William Shakespeare.

An Endorsement of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare

The correct answer to your first question is "William Shakespeare." Other acceptable responses include "John Gielgud," "Derek Jacobi," and "Ben Whishaw." You are slightly misquoting Richard II:

“I wasted time, and now doth time waste me;
For now hath time made me his numbering clock:
My thoughts are minutes; and with sighs they jar
Their watches on unto mine eyes, the outward watch,
Whereto my finger, like a dial's point,
Is pointing still, in cleansing them from tears.”

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To grok the full beauty of the speech—to admire its exquisite play of pivots and the interlocked tic-toc of iambs slipping the word time among senses of meaning—turn to page 878 of the revised edition of the Riverside Shakespeare. The English-speaking gentleman cannot properly call himself such unless the complete works of William Shakespeare have a place on his shelf. Some readers might think this attitude classist, and it's true that the Riverside edition, which is not a short book, may seem a bit expensive, so if times are tough and money gets tight, I'll allow that you can still count yourself a gentleman by selling the shelf. Moreover, if things get really bad and a gentleman needs kindling in order to heat his hovel, it is not incorrect to chop up other pieces of furniture and use the Riverside Shakespeare in lieu of an end table.

An Endorsement of Short Books

Life is short, and the current pace of it can be punishing, what with the demands of work, family, and the existential dread that compels nights of sleepless staring at the alarm clock's infinite circuit of liquid-crystal digits as it tallies inexorable decay. I understand why the letter writer would want some guidance; I think Dorothy Parker was thinking Richard II on her 33rd birthday when with urgent pith she wrote:  

“Time doth flit.
Oh shit.”

No one should spend his precious leisure time reading mediocre books, which is to say most books, including most books on other publications’ lists of books for gentlemen. Once you accept as an unassailable truth that most books are mediocre, you will see that any given short book is better than any given regular-length book simply because it will stop being lifeless and corny all the more quickly. This property should particularly recommend short books to those diligent souls, sentimental fools, and suckers who insist on finishing every book they start. Meanwhile, those who have no trouble abandoning a bad book will appreciate that a short one tends to do less damage to furnishings and pets when flung across the room. 

It is a redeeming feature of life that some books are good. A good book that is about 200 pages long is every bit as good as a good book that is about 400 pages long. The reader arrives more quickly at the end, which is where the real fun starts, according to Nabokov's Paradox: “Curiously enough, one cannot read a book; one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader,” said the author of Pnin, a 200-page comedy about a Russian professor. 

Though it is too late in the history of information for a gentleman to reasonably aspire to be a renaissance gentleman, reading short books about history, philosophy, and mathematics will at least make him more interesting at dinner. Charles Seife's Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea would be a good mind-limbering gift for a fellow with a nonfiction bent, especially if bundled with Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, which counts as a short book if judged against the book that earned its author his gig.

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