Jorge Luis Borges taught a course in English literature in 1966. The lectures were recorded and transcribed (albeit not always accurately when it came to names which were rendered phonetically into Spanish) by some of his students. The lectures have been translated from the Spanish and edited for clarity, but one can tell they were spoken and not written for publication. So far, I have only read a couple of them: on Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson. Borges’ take on their lives and writings is unique to say the least and offers much room for new ideas. It the kind of book where one can pick a lecture topic that is of interest and just read that section.
But it is Epilogue to the book that I want to post today. It is not from a lecture, but an interview with him at the National Library in 1979.
I believe that the phrase “obligatory reading” is a contradiction in terms; reading should not be obligatory. Should we ever speak of “obligatory pleasure”? What for? Pleasure is not obligatory, pleasure is something we seek. Obligatory happiness! We seek happiness as well. For twenty years, I have been a professor of English Literature in the School of Philosophy and Letters at the University of Buenos Aires, and I have always advised by students: If a book bores you, leave it; don’t read a book because it is famous, don’t read it because it is modern, don’t read a book because it is old. If a book is tedious to you, leave it, even if that book is Paradise Lost -which is not tedious to me – or Don Quixote – which is also is not tedious to me. But if a book is tedious to you, don’t read it; that book was not written for you. Reading should be a form of happiness, so I would advise all possible readers of my last will and testament – which I do not plan to write – I would advise them to read a lot, and not to get intimidated by writers’ reputations, to continue to look for personal happiness, personal enjoyment. It is the only way to read.
Great advice for a retired person maybe, but not really the St. John’s College approach. I believe it is in the famous Saturday Review of Literature article on St. John’s from the early 1960s that the phrase, “at St. John’s readings include some of the most boring books written” or something like that. But if I hadn’t had to read Galen or Kant, I believe my life would be less rich. Not true for everyone, probably, but true for me. Sometimes plowing though something boring is good discipline. But when it comes to reading for pleasure, I agree with Professor Borges: Read only what you enjoy.
The book is Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature. Edited by Martin Arias and Martin Hadis. New Directions, 2013