Good Friends, Great Books. BOOKS


University of Chicago Press, 353 pp., $24.95

THE COMPANY WE KEEP: AN ETHICS OF FICTION by Wayne C. Booth, Berkeley: University of California Press, 557 pp., $29.95

WE learn from Wayne Booth's recent collection of essays, ``The Vocation of a Teacher,'' that as a boy in Provo, Utah, he debated whether to stick with chemistry or to wade into the sea of troubles that is English. We can be glad he chose the latter course. Today he's a professor of English at the University of Chicago.

``The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction,'' a second recent book, crowns his 50-year career as an English teacher. It addresses the battle of the books joined by Allan Bloom in ``The Closing of the American Mind'' and E.D. Hirsch in ``Cultural Literacy.'' Like Bloom, Booth appeals to the ethical traditions that go back to Plato and Aristotle. Like Hirsch, he asks the practical question: How to return free citizens to the intellectual substance of freedom, the knowledge that keeps them free?

His answer looks like common sense. We should require of books what we require of our friends. His essays explore an old metaphor: books as friends. That sentimental notion out of John Bartlett's ``Familiar Quotations'' receives rigorous testing.

Laboriously composed and polished from pieces of various origins, ``The Company We Keep'' unfolds its sinuous argument slowly and carefully. Each section is self-contained and has its own bibliography. The reader's momentum is checked by this and other facts about the composition and style of the book, which must be read slowly, even reread, for the encrusted surface to give up its secrets.

Booth is an expert rhetorician (the footnotes are little works of art). He varies his attack. He tells anecdotes, analyzes concepts, reads philosophical texts, describes the experience of certain novels, generalizes, makes lists, and syllogizes. Indeed, this collection embodies the ideal of vigorous, friendly discussion.

Booth is a moralizer, an amateur philosopher, an ironist. His ideal is the ethical one of the Stoic Roman philosopher Seneca: The big thing is for a man to be of a piece, to be unified, whole. But like critics of Stoicism - Horace, Montaigne, Pope - Booth constantly shows how the ideal of consistency can betray one into intolerance and worse.

FICTION invites us to learn about others, he argues. It requires us to ``succumb to the flow'' of another's desire as revealed in the characters of fiction. Through its characters, fiction reveals the drift of experience. Reading fiction can be risky, even frightening, if you are unsure of who you are. Booth argues that the reader is himself a composite of characters. All this contemporary talk about ``self,'' he says, divorces us from our real reasons for altruism: Others are in us!

Booth puts great demands on both authors and readers. He tests classic novels in light of new sensitivities.

In rereadings of Jane Austen, Rabelais, and D.H. Lawrence, he employs legitimate doctrinal criticism of feminism, and he rereads ``Huckleberry Finn'' in light of the doctrinal criticism of black scholars. We learn why he says: ``When art and criticism are viewed as forms of conduct, they lead us into the very battles that we may have hoped to escape by turning to art in the first place.''

Fiction is no escape from responsibility. Once he was asked by a roomful of his peers where he got his ``insane love for literature.'' They were embarrassed for him. But Booth's love is beautifully tempered by hard thought. At times his own prose attains a kind of sublime, a sort of moral dithyramb.

Addressing the ideal book, he writes, ``your company is in some ways superior even to the best company I can hope to discover among the real people I live with. Certainly it is superior,'' he goes on to say, ``to what is usually provided by those `inner resources' we are all advised to fall back on when bored. Unlike `real' people, you are an idealized version of the writer who created you, the disorganized, flawed creature who in a sense discovered you by expunging his or her duller times and weaker moments. You lead me first to practice ways of living that are more profound, more sensitive, more intense, and in a curious way more fully generous than I am likely to meet anywhere else in the world. You correct my faults, rebuke my insensitivities. You mold me into patterns of longing and fulfillment that make my ordinary dreams seem petty and absurd. You finally show what life can be, not just to a coterie, a saved and saving remnant looking down on the fools, slobs, and knaves, but to anyone who is willing to work to earn the title of equal and true friend.''

Books, like friends, can be good influences. What makes a great book a good book? With Horace and Alexander Pope, Booth requires that his friends not merely praise his dress and figure, but help him desire better desires, help him become what he ought to become - ``That Man divine whom Wisdom calls her own.''

By transposing this definition of friendship to our relationships with fiction, Booth heals the division between values and practices that plagues not only journalism and higher education, but all our intimacies. With ``The Company We Keep,'' Wayne Booth joins the authors he has taught us to love over the years: It exhibits, justifies, and promotes this insane love of literature.

Thomas D'Evelyn reviews literature and philosophy for the Monitor.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Good Friends, Great Books. BOOKS
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today