Value Judgements and Early Reading

I read Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend for the first time several months ago and found it utterly gripping. I’m sure I’ll read it again, perhaps several times, and I’m sure it will mean more to me every time. Of the novels I’ve read for the first time in the last couple of years, this is the one that I’m most convinced really is a major work of lasting power. It saddens me to feel that it can never affect me as deeply as a number of books I read long ago have done, and can never become part of my life in the way they have. Even trivial experiences in childhood belong to the dreamtime when we become what we are. The same applies to the books and tv serials we take to our hearts when we’re young. Whether by actually shaping our imaginations or by reflecting and revealing the shapes our imaginations are naturally inclined to take, they become so involved in our sense of who we are that it’s impossible for us to judge them from outside. When I hear people arguing about whether C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books are beautiful or disgusting, or whether The Lord of the Rings is magnificent or silly, I can only share the argument in the most token or external way, because those books, like Mary Renault’s The King Must Die and The Bull From the Sea, are so woven into the foundations of my life that I can’t stand outside them enough to make meaningful comparisons between them and other books.


But in the end all evaluative criticism is relatively external and trivial, an activity of the opinionative surface of the mind. What really matters to you as an individual is not the judgement you form of how “good” a book is, but how deeply that book can enter and inform and possess your intelligence and imagination, and be possessed by them. Critical evaluations are obviously a part of the process, but they’re only a part of it and they’re often very transient, coming and going in bursts of intellectual excitement. When Eliot writes about


music heard so deeply

That it is not heard at all, but you are the music

While the music lasts 


in “The Dry Salvages”, he beautifully suggests the pitch of total concentration we can reach in experiencing music and literature. Of course, in context he is revolving religious and mystical ideas that aren’t part of my concern, but his metaphor seems to take for granted what I’m trying to say, both the collapse of critical distance between you and the work you are experiencing while you really experience it, and also that the true depth of meaning inheres in the experience itself, not in our theories about it.


This doesn’t mean that it simply doesn’t matter how good or rich or true a work is, in the ways that matter to its reader’s true inner self. How much goodness and richness and truth it has in those ways will be reflected in what it means to that reader, and will decide whether it goes on absorbing him, expanding in his mind and revealing new things to him. Nor does it mean that parents and teachers simply shouldn’t care what they put in front of children. Clearly we need to use all our imagination, sensitivity and intelligence to make the best judgements we can in such an important matter. However, we also have to accept that in the end we’re dealing with something that is in many ways out of our control, and just hope that if we can keep children reading in an interested, attentive way over a wide range of material, and can refrain from pushing our own judgements at them too insistently, they will find their own way to things that will provide the right kind of imaginative nourishment for them.


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