The Gift of Fire

As a kid with an appetite for literature, I managed to discover very early on the difference between what was good and what was not. I soon came to realize that much of what was good was not to my taste, while pretty much all of what was not was a waste of my time. I also learned to keep my mouth shut, most of the time, about what I had found in books because it was not appreciated by the authorities (i.e., teachers, parents, etc.).

Literature was for many a religion (most especially for the irreligious), akin to their political faiths. And this perception, coupled with the childhood understanding that one was never to argue with anyone else about religion, was a blessing. Early on, it enlightened my awareness of the futility of arguing about literature, as well as art, music, film, and politics, and left me to my own devices.

The frequency of the same people who believed in certain types of politics to also like particular forms of music, and enjoy specific films or art, was clearly no coincidence. I noticed this before I was out of high school.

And this then served as a ready vantage from which to appreciate others who broke this mold. When someone told me they liked some particular sort of music—one I could not abide—but also loved novels by an author I liked, I immediately looked for a reason to explain the contradiction. And there always was one—and this usually led to the discovery that I had missed a connection. Almost any art form that has reached a level of some perfection has more to it than the obvious. This was the lesson for me. At least the one I took away.

The next level was to ask myself why certain patterns held for people of particular intellectual bents. Now, you have already caught on that I am purposefully avoiding specific labels. You will also recognize that making any explicit charge concerning any given art form is tantamount to attacking a particular religion in this context. Believers will immediately abandon all hope of understanding anything else I have to say. I will lose them soon enough anyway. Why rush it?

By the time I was legally an adult I had managed to read a fair percentage of what were touted to be the great books—say, 10 percent (perhaps a generous estimate but close). It is a vague enough idea to begin with, but I had specifically set out to do this based originally on a list of the Harvard Classics, which I then supplemented with many of the Modern Library and Everyman editions. I was quite addicted to the Penguin classics as well as their modern literature editions in paperback. Thankfully, the paperback revolution offered a fabulous wealth and breadth of literature of all kinds at very low cost—pennies if I bought them used.

In those days, I was reading over a hundred books a year. I have slowed down considerably since, but I passed roughly a thousand before I graduated from college, and I’ve easily knocked off, or down, another 3,000-4,000 in the 50 years since. I am a slow reader, so this will not impress many of you. Worse, I have a tendency to digress and to wander. But then, my eyes have always been the worse for wear.

As we enter this new dark age—bright and shiny though it appears in digital format—and I take note of the reading habits of that minority who still reads at all, I am now worried about the purportedly ecumenical nature of reading today. Not counting people of my own age who were raised with that same abundance of available literature that I knew, and usually discovered on their own the delight of a good novel and its precious use as a window as well as a mirror, most of the younger buyers now appear to be clueless about what they should read and why. They take recommendations from plastic faces on digital screens and move from vogue to fad, trending to mania. With the young buying less than half as much as they once did, the older buyers account for about half of my customers. The generation between is split between those seeking good books and those given over to whim, but they represent at least a third of the remainder of my sales.

I know of a new bookshop in our area that would dispute these figures—but they create their audience by specifically appealing to the fashion and fad of the moment, so their sense of the matter is skewed. As a purveyor of used books—and more often than not, titles purchased from my customers—my own estimates are admittedly twisted by the interests of heavy readers. Because so many of our books come from estate sales, they are older titles to begin with and thus attract an older audience. All that is true. But you would have to believe the latest is always the greatest to avoid comparisons between the 200-year-old novels of Jane Austen and the most recent Sally Rooney, or Nicholas Sparks.

A more recent observation, while perusing the Good Reads Choice Awards list of current fiction, is that a large number of those titles are promoting various sorts of current political correctness in very much the same way as the religious and temperance novels of the 19th century once did. I am fairly confident, if anyone is still reading in another hundred years, that these newer works will soon be as forgotten as their progenitors. But for the present, no good can come from such cultural amnesia.

Quite a few recent titles are essentially fantasies, involving characters trapped in current social issues and various ill-imagined difficulties (why they insist on reusing memes taken from popular movies is a question of unoriginality). Tolkien worked on a series of fantasies for 30 years based on research into linguistics, history, and mythology, and developed it into a consistently fine woven tapestry to rival all the history that we know, yet now, given the success of the movies rendered from those works (God forbid they should actually read them) a slew of new authors has lifted what they can easily copy and seem to be making new hay.

A “new” formula is now the key writing element. I had to endure those terrible years of academically approved literature when all formula was verboten—so much so that its very avoidance became a formula of its own. Now, a perusal of the latest product of writer’s groups and agents has produced so much regurgitated hogwash and woke-swill that I can look back fondly on the days of Borges and Nabokov and Greene again—almost.

The current result would be depressing except for the fact that I have been watching the process for so long I am benumbed. This is not a happy matter for me, but it is a fairly normal human response to ongoing pain—also, a matter of old age.

There are almost too many great writers to account for in the last two centuries. A normal lifetime of reading is insufficient if we are to go about our daily lives with deference to loving our families and paying the bills. But the importance of reading to the conduct of our lives is the thing. The metaphor of books being both a window and a mirror is not to be ignored, nor the need for simple entertainment and perspective. Life is not a grind if lived well.

Importantly, the “message” authors such as George Orwell, Albert Camus, Aldous Huxley, and Ayn Rand, can be read for the entertainment of their devices as much as the instruction. Supposed genre authors such as Ray Bradbury, Raymond Chandler, and Philip K. Dick have broken down the ghetto walls. Of course, Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy, George Sand, and Herman Melville are still in print and readily available today in hundreds of used editions. May Mark Twain and Charles Dickens and Alexander Dumas always be with us—but quick, they must be passed on to the new generation before the old habits are completely lost!

In the wake of the new woke climate change, the schools will not teach them, or when seldom they do, they’ll make sawdust of Shakespeare. You cannot grasp the full resonance of greatly chosen words by watching a screen. Fine acting is by definition an interpretation. And a digitalization of literature is as readily screwed with as electronic voting.

Books themselves, objects made precious by reading, become the touchstones of a life. Any reader knows the pleasure of simply seeing the spine of a much-loved work on the shelf, and that immediate recall of another time and place.

As a society, we are growing out of the habits that made all that we have possible and with them an understanding of our faults as well as our virtues. The indoctrination of social media is obvious to anyone who cares to care. Taking note of Twitter feeds, rather than reading the essay of a mind that has bothered to engage with the world, such as Eric Hoffer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, or Thomas Sowell, and thus make sense of some small part of it, will not help. The young will not learn to read by watching superhero movies and Disney cartoons. And most importantly, the best teaching is that done by example.

People who tell me they don’t have time to read but know the score of a ball game played by multimillionaires who have never opened a book out of school are not to be excused. People who know the best lines from their favorite movies but can’t tell you their favorite lines from Robert Browning, or Emily Dickinson, or William Butler Yeats are not going to raise children who will read.

Going into the tasteful homes of very nice people who have large electronic screens dominating their living rooms but no library (or even a piano), is disheartening. They are setting the example that will be followed. As Walt Kelly once said, in a comic strip no less (and as I have ruefully noted too many times before),We have met the enemy, and he is us.” The great essayist and grammarian Richard Mitchell called words, “The Gift of Fire.” This flame cannot endure without the context of books. Though the books may be burned for temporary heat, there will be an end. 

About Vincent McCaffrey

Vincent McCaffrey is a novelist and bookseller. Visit his website at

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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