A Gentleman’s Reading List

Answers for modern men.
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.

An Endorsement of Books Collecting Short Pieces

Who does not love a snack pack of puddings or a mixed six of beer? Hemingway and Updike each did their best writing in short stories, and Saul Bellow's Collected Stories provides an excellent introduction to his work. Hunter S. Thompson's most lucid work is found in his letters, in among the missives where he tries on personae, relieves himself of unmasked confessions, and submits meticulous reports tallying demented expenses.

An Endorsement of Short Books Written by Ladies

Ladies are interesting, especially Penelope Fitzgerald, who wrote historical novels like gorgeous presents, conjuring the past with intense presence and immense immediacy. There is something for everyone in Human Voices, set at the BBC during the Blitz, with its international politics, intraoffice romances, and offhand engagements of Orwell: "Broadcasting House was in fact dedicated to the strangest project of the war, or of any war, that is, telling the truth." 

If you are in the market for a semiautobiographical first novel offering the diametrical opposite of the copious loathsomeness that phrase implies, try Andrea Lee's Sarah Phillips. If you are digging the spooky anomie of the new Tao Lin book, try Renata Adler's Speedboat, a scalpel etching of the distorted city night. And if you want to trip the heavy, high-modern fantastic of foxy diction and fancy syntax, Djuna Barnes'  Nightwood is your new jam.  

An Endorsement of a Short Book Written by a Shorter Gentleman

Norman Mailer was about 5 feet 4 inches, and his particular way of carrying his body and soul—his rocket ambition to punch up into the pantheon—comes through best in The Prisoner of Sex. You can enjoy the book thoroughly without agreeing with everything Mailer has to say about Kate Millett, Germaine Greer, and feminism; indeed, if you were to silently agree with half of it, in 2013, the thought police would take you away. But there are a few subtle observations in here, and many rumbles of bluster. Mailer (the writer) gives us Mailer (the character) at his largest.

An Endorsement of a Short Book Written By a Shorter Lady

"It is farce—but farce full of shrewd observation," said H.L. Mencken, who would have known better than anyone, as he was the opportunist under observation. I don't know whether Mencken—who was addled by serious stroke by the time Howard Hawks' film adaptation of the book appeared—ever saw Marilyn Monroe as Lorelei Lee, but I know he would have liked to hear her. The Sage of Baltimore was a sucker for a certain voice: "When a woman has a low-pitched and soft voice, with a good clang-tint, she is free to consume my wealth and waste my time whenever the spirit moves her."

An Endorsement of a Short Book Collecting Short Pieces by a Shorter Lady

Slouching Towards Bethlehem
By Joan Didion, 5 feet, when slouching

"Perfect essays abound in this world—almost every one of Joan Didion’s fits the category," says Zadie Smith, overstating the case only slightly. Smith, incidentally, represents the over-under for determining the height of lady writers, having once described herself to this interviewer as "normal girl height."

---

Dear Gentleman Scholar,

An acquaintance just wrote a novel. Do I have to read it?

No. One cannot just go around reading the books of friends and acquaintances. The exceptions to this rule are few and obvious—looking at a draft to give constructive criticism, searching for thinly veiled gossip, so on. The sound reasons for obeying the rule are many and various. Like, what if the book turns out to be a best-seller? If you read the future best-seller and determine it to be bad, then you have to resent your friend's success. If you read it and determine it to be good, then you have to envy his talent. There's no way to win. Never read your friends' books, probably. Instead, buy a copy, read the first and last sentences, skim the fourth chapter, cast a forensic eye at the acknowledgments page, and give it as a gift to someone else.  

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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