|[a] Read-climb RL|
It was not unusual for me to have spent an hour (not including my mid-morning, head-clearing walk) with the preface to a book that I really wanted to read. I knew that the pace would pick up, but I was following a reading strategy that I developed in college and have continued right up to the present. Even back then, I knew that rereading was one of the most important things I could do, and I began working on strategies for getting the most out of an argument. Indeed, rereading is a practice I try to instill in students, and their reactions vary from curiosity to disgust. The Sacred 5 of China was a good example of a book that I intended to read thrice—once to get the hang of it, the second time with great care and reflection upon detail, and the third to solidify my grasp of the volume. This is the highest "care-level" I give to a book, with the exception of those that are so great and so difficult that they should be labeled hors catégorie, or "beyond categorization." Those should be reread all through life.
|[b] Cat 4...3? RF|
In the Tour de France (other cycling events have similar categories), the vertical ascents on each day's route are labeled with a numbering system that awards points to the first, second, third, and subsequent competitors over the peak in a sliding point scale. Since Geil addressed mountain culture in the book I was reading, I was led to consider my reading strategies in a mountain-climbing sort of way. This diversion was more important than I could have guessed at the time, since the hours I have spent with Geil's writing in the last three years have turned out to be beyond anything I could have known back then. Still, it was worthy of a little reflection even that late-autumn morning. I had, after all, spent Hegel-type time on an unknown author, and I could not help thinking of those Tour de France mountain points in relation to my reading efforts.
In Le Tour, a fourth category climb is not as arduous as a third, nor a second as challenging as a first. The length of the climb and its difficulty (usually steepness, but sometimes combined with road conditions) figures into the calculations. The Tour de France organization rates them première, deuxieme, troisieme, and quatrieme. Everything else is "flat" for ranking purposes, no matter how strenuous the brief, 20% grade is up to the promontory outside of that quaint little town in Provence. And then there are the "HC" climbs. The Alpe d'Huez, the Col de la Madeleine, and the Col du Galibier—these tortuous icons are so difficult that they have a category of their own that says, in essence, that they lie beyond efforts to enumerate. Not surprisingly, these climbs are among the most famous in the history of Le Tour.
|[c] Tricky RF|
A trade paperback novel is like an uncategorized section of terrain. It might be worth the read, but the Tour de France organization in your head is probably not going to go out of its way to return to it or give it a number. A hillock, in other words. I know people who have basements full of trade paperbacks, and one of the few opinions most share is that they have little desire to return to most of them. One-and-done; fun while it lasted. Whizzing by variegated terrain. There are a few exceptions, though. Let's say that you really like John Le Carré, and return from time to time for a reread of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or The Honourable Schoolboy. You know what happened, but you still like working through the pages anyway. They make you...er, sort of Smiley. Category Four. A friend of mine used to read P.D. James like that—plowing through the novels at lunchtime, over-and-over for years.
That is still a little different, I think, than reading Henry James or Balzac or Melville or Zola or, well, you get the idea. I know that there may be some quibbling here (postmodern hand wringing about whether we can compare texts), but they still get a "third category" (this is not an aspersion) designation from me in terms of effort. The route is long, to be sure (I am thinking of The Ambassadors, Cousin Bette, Moby Dick, and Germinal), but the story pulls the rider (reader) along to the summit. And let's just be clear: such books are very worthy of rereading. Some of them are among the best things ever written. The effort they require, though, is more like a memorable climb at 5% gradient to a lovely plateau. You can picnic there, and may remember the winding (narrative) road long after seemingly "harder" climbs (and reads) have been forgotten.
|[d] Up...hill RF|
So what, then, is a "category one" read in this classification? For me, it is a work that—while it cannot necessarily be argued as "better" than those we have discussed—is surely a tougher slog. These are books that don't have a story (or as much of one) to pull the reader along. They are "important" and they are somewhat difficult-going. Stephen Jay Gould's The Structure of Evolutionary Theory would be one, Pierre Bourdieu's Outline of a Theory of Practice would be another, and Charles Taylor's Sources of the Self would be a third. From here, things get tricky, but no more difficult than rating hills and mountains all over France. What if a book is "difficult" to read, but not very good...or important? That would cover the vast majority of stuff academics write, and I would put it somewhere in the 1-2 category if I cannot just avoid reading it in the first place. What if, on the other hand, something is written so beautifully that it fairly masks the depth of its learning—that it is so elegant and masterful that it seems "easy"...but isn't? Of course, you mean Rousseau's Emile, and I would put it right up there in the first category because of its significance.
These are relative measures, to be sure. On the other hand, it is not that hard to get rough agreement, any more than cyclists in the Le Tour agonize over the differences between categories two and three. They click into the small chain ring and increase their cadence. Up and over. "Taste" has about as much to do with reading (I think) as measuring hills—a little, in other words. The Col du Tourmalet is not a molehill, and the Nicomachean Ethics is not USA Today. And finally, "Beyond Category" is just like it sounds. Although many works fit this definition, we can all agree on one—Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. "Story" is not going to pull us along, and it is, er, rather difficult. And important. It's the Mont Ventoux of reading, and you might as well just learn German, because it's impossible in any language.
What does this have to do with William Edgar Geil's The Sacred 5 of China?
Accidental 6e Accidental 6f Accidental 6g Accidental 6h
|[e] Read-act RF|