Graham's approach implicitly reflects a widespread nostalgia for the gloriously learned mind and limber memory ofa retrospectively constructed Renaissance reader. This reader,we like to imagine, had a prodigious memory, did not need explanations of allusions, knew manyclassical and modern languages, and in general possessed a keen and erudite literary mind. He orshe was a committed dweller of libraries, a writer in margins, and a keeper of commonplacebooks, often with personalized cross-referencing systems. This rare and imaginary person, usuallythought of as a creation of the high age of print, has been elegized by George Steiner in tworelated essays ("After the Book?" and "The Uncommon Reader"). Because many of us fail toconform to this model in any number of ways, we rely on various scholarly tools to help us approximate the powers of this"uncommon reader."
I findthe first essay utterly disgusting. "The uncommon reader"is clearly an attack on the essay "The common reader" byVirginia Woolf. Let me say that VW is quite possibly the greatestwriter of the twentieth century. An attack against her better addressthe points she raises directly; she is not to be tossed aside, asGeorge Steiner does. Essentially, VW says that everybody has a brain,and even, or perhaps, especially, the nameless middle-class armchairreaders are the most important ones. Steiner believes that thereshould be a class of priest-like readers, who receive special training(basically an intellectual elite). The common reader, he (I sense animplied male chauvanism in Steiner's work) never did anything,Steiner's essay snorts. I think the common readers should decided forhis/herselves.
In "The Uncommon Reader," the opening piece in his latest collection, "No Passion Spent: Essays 1978-1995," the critic George Steiner traces the decline of reading in contemporary culture. His approach is elliptical. The essay begins with a close examination -- a reading, really -- of a painting of a man reading, Chardin's "Philosophe Lisant," done in 1734. And he offers several fresh explanations for the decline: the rise of music, the disappearance of silence, the loss of memorization as a cultivated skill.
George Steiner's essay "The Uncommon Reader" is perhaps the most thoughtful analysis and contemplation of marginalia and my thinking has been greatly influenced by his brilliant writing. Steiner emphasizes that the true act of marginalia must include a sensitivity. He says that in order to produce the best kind of marginalia, one must earnestly search for the "original and imaginative scruple" that guides the author. He says that good marginalia are empathetic by treating the text with care. A reader should believe and doubt, but never be divorced from a real sense of urgency in the text. As one of his main points, Steiner writes, "The principal truth is this: latent in every act of complete reading is the compulsion to write a book in reply." And if we are to consider marginalia dead media, we must realize how the scribbles and notes of today have shifted away from this fundamental objective.
BOOKS OF THE TIMES;Essays That Hurl Vexing Challenges …
George Steiner has been a remarkable performer on the world intellectual stage since his first book, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, appeared in 1960. A literary and cultural critic with an uncommon breadth of interests from music to science, he has provoked, dazzled and bewildered successive generations with his bold speculations, his effusive devotion to genius, and his breathlessly hyperbolic style. Now approaching his eightieth year, and having already issued a memoir, Errata (1997), he comes forward with a collection of seven original essays, each sketching out the subject of a book that he had once hoped to write but never did. The resulting one-volume library of abandoned projects gives us a condensed and many-sided self-portrait of a mind teeming with intellectual obsessions and quirks.