My Commonplace Book (a diary of excerpts copied from printed books, with comments added by the reader.)
“ . . . the greatest writers inevitably demand too much of, and are failed by, readers.”
——Susan Sontag (1933—2004) Novelist, essayist
I scribbled this long ago and have no idea where I read it. Nor do I have a clear memory of what I thought about it—I was too awed by Sontag’s famous erudition to doubt that she must be right, whatever she said.
Now I’m ready to look at it again, still admiringly, but with questions.
Obviously, a great scientific writer demands more technical education than I have. Similarly, great or even just good poetry demands repeated reading (silently and aloud) to penetrate its layers of meaning. Ditto for most philosophical writers (bless Bertrand Russell for stooping to write a few books at a level an ordinary reader might understand.)
Moreover, the meaning of books changes over time—as the reader ages into more experience. The now-hilarious example I can offer is my being required to read Hawthorne’s classic “The Scarlett Letter,” in seventh grade, back in the innocent days when half the class had no idea how Hester earned this emblem of shame, plus a baby whose origin was even more mysterious. In less dramatic examples, a novel like Butler’s “The Way of All Flesh” takes on new layers of meaning (and humor) endlessly, the story seeming to mature with the reader.
Yet, part of me rebels against Sontag’s assertion. I still believe that the very greatest writers (apart from technical, scientific writers) are the one who achieve a rare simplicity with which they can convey the wisest insights to any mature (not necessarily in years), serious, and attentive reader.
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