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This item is taken from PN Review 86, Volume 18 Number 6, July - August 1992.

Letters from Paul Carey, Anthony Curtis and John Matthias

It was generous of you to print an article (by Raymond Tallis in P·N·R 83) which if accepted would lead your readers to stop reading the magazine. Fortunately for P·N·R, I'm not sure it succeeds.

Tallis' argument seems to have four premisses:

(i) there is an enormous amount of great literature worth reading;
(ii) the time we can devote to this is so severely limited that we cannot hope to read it all. Tallis calculates that the typical non-academic reader will have on average only 40 minutes daily to tackle a forbidding flood of the great. His calculation denies his text-drowned unfortunate any lunch hours, weekends, holiday or hope of retirement, but nonetheless, it is obvious enough that time to read is short compared to what is worth reading.
(iii) we should make best use of limited reading time;
(iv) the best use of limited time is to concentrate on the great primary texts.

>From these premisses he concludes that therefore we should not waste time reading the deluge of contemporary literary criticism.
Initially this seems reasonable enough, but I think there are two problems. The first is with the outcome: it seems to prove more than Tallis perhaps intends, for doesn't the argument work just as well against reading new primary texts? In which case how will future great works be discovered? And certainly P·N·R should not be read - including of course Tallis's own articles (though I'm sure he would indeed modestly prefer us to be reading Proust).
I would also challenge premiss (iv). A diet designed to maximize consumption of the great would have its disadvantages:

(i) We would miss out on the thrill of the new, the chance - in original work or even in criticism - to participate in developments, and to be making fresh judgements;
(ii) We would miss out on explicitly contemporary concerns, even accepting that the greats do continue to be relevant. What we read instead may be transient, but does that matter if it serves us now?
(iii) It would be harder to specialize if you were not going to explore backgroundsøbiographiesøinterpretations. Yet it may be that in limited time it is best to attempt to understand a few writers well rather than covering as many of the great as possible, but more superficially. To the average reader, secondary texts can be a useful part of achieving such deeper understanding.
(iv) We might get indigestion on such a rich diet.

None of this is to say that we should read much literary criticism, and I certainly don't. But on most subjects more and more books are being published, most necessarily (and many no doubt fortunately) left unread. Criticism needs no special dismissal beyond the general hope that the small proportion we do read will be the most rewarding. Indeed it is the critical consensus which helps us to make such choices - I'd be more worried that such consensus is wrong than that most of its products are superfluous.

Park Road, Winchester


'Since when did a sun have wings?' asks Donald Davie in his piece on Charles Wesley's verse (P·N·R 84). The answer to that is - for three thousand five hundred years, as a wealth of surviving inscriptions, drawings and paintings on rock-faces, tombs and papyrus testify.

As J.H. Breasted put it in The Dawn of Conscience (1935):

At Edfu, in Upper Egypt, the Sun-god appeared as a falcon, for the lofty flight of this bird, which seemed a very comrade of the sun, had led the early fancy of the Nile peasant to believe that the sun must be such a falcon, taking his daily flight across the heavens, and the sun-disk with the outspread wings of the falcon became the commonest symbol of Egyptian religion. It has come down to us through Hebrew literature in such pictures as 'the wings of the morning' and 'the sun of righteousness … with healing in his wings'.

9 Essex Villas, London W8 7BP

I was a little surprised to find my book, A Gathering of Ways, reviewed a second time in P·N·R 85. It had been reviewed once already by Richard Francis in P·N·R 82. Neither time, however, was the British distributor listed with the title. As I value my British readers very much, I would like to tell them that A Gathering of Ways is available from the Academic & University Publishers Group, 1 Gower Street, London WC1E 6HA. The price of the paperback edition is £8.95. The cloth edition must be ordered directly from Swallow Press in the United States.

Notre Dame, Indiana

This item is taken from PN Review 86, Volume 18 Number 6, July - August 1992.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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