Editor's essay. Reading books here, there, but not through

ANYONE who reads widely and serendipitously will have noticed that the impression left by an author is not necessarily in proportion to the time and effort expended on reading him or her. Asked to name a fine writer, I will likely as not say, ``Elizabeth David,'' but I've never read anything of hers straight through.

After all, David is a food writer. Desiring to test my rather vague sense of her excellence, I recently opened one of her books at random. My eye fell on this:

``Although it is fortunately not true, as is so often asserted, that modern Italian cooking has foundered in tomato sauce, it is difficult not to regret the days when the tomato was treated with caution, and kept in its place. But it is also agreeable to recall, in savoring a simple sauce such as Latini's, something of the shock of surprise and pleasure some of his contemporaries must have experienced when they first tasted those cool, sweet-acid tomatoes in the heat of a Naples summer.''

That's a true touchstone of English prose. David manages her traditional syntax with arch aplomb. The shift in tone in the first clause is comic, but good-natured, and the main clause contrasts her authoritarian traditionalism with the threat to order posed by the tomato. Her many twisting qualifications are made against the great English gothic arch of antithesis (notice the ``but'' in the middle of the paragraph) that governs the entire paragraph.

Throughout, past and present, taste and thought, combine in a unique act of judgment. And I don't have to know who Latini is to taste ``those cool, sweet-acid tomatoes'' she offers at the end, nor to notice how good they taste ``in the heat of a Naples summer''!

Another writer I love to dip into is the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. In his life work, Balthasar is making up for a mistake made a thousand years ago, when the early Christians spent all their time reading Greek philosophy, to the neglect of Greek tragedy, the high point of Greek myth and poetry. Balthasar, it has been said, does theology as literary criticism. He can be read either way.

Balthasar's main work is called ``The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics'' (Ignatius Press). Vol. 3, on lay styles, has afforded me many hours of pleasure. Containing essays on Dante, St. John of the Cross, Pascal, Hamann, Soloviev, Hopkins, and P'eguy, it offers a rich spread indeed.

Perhaps the metaphor for reading Balthasar should be athletic. It's like long-distance running, with Balthasar setting the pace. The country the reader runs through is beautiful, but there's always more road ahead. The paragraphs tend to be long, the thought lofty, the argument strenuous. Sometimes just facing the next paragraph is a challenge.

Balthasar writes far more simply in his little book, ``Truth is Symphonic: Aspects of Christian Pluralism'' (also from Ignatius Press). Less difficult, the thought is perhaps no less sublime than in his philosophical magnum opus. Exploring the metaphor implicit in the phrase, ``truth is symphonic,'' Balthasar writes,

``The world is like a vast orchestra tuning up: each player plays to himself, while the audience take their seats and the conductor has not yet arrived. All the same, someone has struck an A on the piano, and a certain unity of atmosphere is established around it: they are tuning up for some common endeavor. Nor is the particular selection of instruments fortuitous: with their graded differences of qualities, they already form a kind of system of coordinates. The oboe, perhaps supported by the bassoon, will provide a foil to the corpus of strings, but could not do so effectively if the horns did not create a background linking the two sides of this counterpoint. The choice of instruments comes from the unity that, for the moment, lies silent in the open score on the conductor's podium - but soon, when the conductor taps with his baton, this unity will draw everything to itself and transport it, and then we shall see why each instrument is there.'' .

The wonderful fullness of this passage - the way Balthasar allows the metaphor to flower - is no mere matter of style. Balthasar has caught a moment of suspense. The audience settles in and looks around. Wondering why this particular configuration of instruments, it waits for the arrival of the conductor and the opening bars of the symphony.

Like the audience, we readers must be patient. And, as a theologian, Balthasar is saying something more about patience. ``Understanding'' will follow on the ``transport'' caused by the sound of the music of creation.

As the next paragraph begins, the metaphor dissolves to reveal the philosophical nut: ``In his revelation, God performs a symphony, and it is impossible to say which is richer: the seamless genius of his composition or the polyphonous orchestra of Creation that he has prepared to play it.''

Balthasar's work grows out of that ``impossibility'' of saying ``which is richer.'' Between the poles of ``seamless genius'' of the creator and the manifold of the creation, he weaves his great fabric of words.

It's a privilege to read him, but my love for Balthasar does not mean that I want to read him through!

Which reminds me of a story in Boswell's ``Life of Samuel Johnson.'' Once he says,``Mr. Elphinstone talked of a new book that was much admired, and asked Dr. Johnson if he had read it. JOHNSON `I have looked into it.' `What (said Elphinstone), have you not read it through?' - Johnson, offended at being thus pressed, and so obliged to own his own cursory mode of reading, answered tartly, `No, Sir: do you read books through?'''

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