In 1940, when the Second World War was underway and the Battle of Britain had begun, Dorothy L. Sayers wrote a little book for Gollancz called Begin Here: A War-Time Essay. (It was published in America the next year as Begin Here: A Statement of Faith.) It is a curious book, seeking to articulate in a casual and offhand way the conditions under which a society under siege might discover a non-economic means of unity. Like many writers of the time, Sayers was concerned with what war might do to the intellectual and educational life of her country, and therefore concluded the book with a list of recommended books and “A Note on Creative Reading.” I think her account of reading is interesting enough to reproduce in full.
Reading being one of our principal occupations on long, dark evenings, I should like to explain what I mean by saying that it ought to be done creatively. (Here, by the way, I am on my own special ground, and shall take leave to speak with authority.)
Do not, I implore you, continue in that indolent and soul-destroying habit of picking up a book “to distract your mind” (“distract” is the word for it) or “to knock down time” (there is only too little time already, and it will knock us down soon enough). The only respectable reason for reading a book is that you want to know what is in it. Do not choose your literature by the half-witted process of asking the young woman at the library for “a nice book” and enquiring anxiously of her, “Shall I like it?” Subscribe to a decently serious paper, read the reviews and order what you think will interest you. (Study the publishers’ lists too, by all means, bearing in mind that the “blurb” is written to sell the book and is therefore not an expression of free criticism. Do not be too much put off either; many a good book has a sickening blurb.)
If the book, when obtained, does not interest you, ask yourself why; and have the elementary politeness to give yourself a sensible answer. Does the subject displease you ? — and if so, is it by any chance one of those disquieting things that you “would rather not know about”, though you really ought not to shirk it? Does the author’s opinion conflict with some cherished opinion of your own ? — If so, can you give reasons for your own opinion? (Do try and avoid the criticism that begins: “We do not like to think” this, that or the other; it is often so painfully true that we do not like to think.) Or is it that the author is ignorant, illogical or superficial? (Are you sure? Have you taken the trouble to verify his references? Can you support your own view from your reading or experience?) Or is his style dull, obscure, or ugly? Does he write bad English? If you think so, justify yourself by examples and be sure you know why they are bad. (And don’t trust those horrid little manuals all about how to write correct English; they are nearly always wrong or hopelessly pedantic; consult the people who know real literature when they see it, like H. W. Fowler, Quiller-Couch or A. P. Herbert. Language is a live thing; you can’t confine it in little primers.)
If, on the other hand, the book does interest you, don’t leave it at that. Go on and read other books bearing on the subject, and collect illuminating experience of your own; go out and get the experience. See whether, in view of what the books say, you can’t and ought not to do something about it; make the books part of your life. And if the author’s style appeals to you, do make a point of enjoying it. Get the feel of balance in a beautiful sentence, rejoice in the lovely appropriateness of the exact right word and thank your gods that the author had the wit and industry to choose that word, out of a whole dictionaryful of less adequate words, for the express purpose of pleasing you. Entertain yourself by finding other words yourself and discovering why they sound so feeble by comparison.
Pray get rid of the idea that books are each a separate thing, divided from one another and from life. Read each in the light of all the others, especially in the light of books of another kind. Try and see — this is the most fascinating exercise of all — whether a statement in one book may not be a statement of the same experience which another book expresses in quite different terms. (I tried to make a “synthesis” of this kind about biological man and the theological doctrine of the Fall.) Try the experiment of putting a statement of one kind into the terms of another. Try especially putting statements made in old-fashioned language into modern terms. You will often find that things you have taken all your life for incomprehensible dogmas turn out to be perfectly intelligible observations of truth. Take, for instance, those dark pronouncements in the Athanasian Creed that God is uncreate, incomprehensible and eternal, and re-state them like this: “The standard of Absolute Value is not limited by matter, not limited by space, not limited by time.” It may seem more acceptable that way….
Or if you read somewhere a reference to “Aristotle’s three Dramatic Unities — unity of time, unity of place and unity of action”, do not (as some writers do who should know better) dismiss Aristotle as a tedious old classic of two thousand years ago who tried to tie up dramatic form in red-tape of his own manufacture. What he said was a statement of fact about the plays he had observed to be successful, and he meant exactly what your favourite dramatic critic means when he says: “The interest in this play is too much scattered, and confused with side-issues. There are far too many scenes, and the story drags on over a period of three generations, so that we have to be continually consulting the programme to know what year we have got to.”
Which reminds me: please burn all your book-markers — even the pretty one Aunt Mabel sent you last Christmas (or at least put that one away and only bring it out when she comes to call). You cannot possibly be so bird-witted as to be unable to discover which page you got to by looking at it. If the author mentions some other book in terms which make it seem important, whether he approves or refutes it, don’t take his word for it: get the other book and read it, and judge for yourself. If he refers to something, or uses some word, which you don’t understand, get a dictionary or work of reference and look it up. (Don’t write and ask the author to explain; he is not required to be an Encyclopedia, and you will only give him a poor idea of your industry and intelligence.) Especially, examine the sources of what he writes; to read Mr. Somebody’s critical valuation of Milton’s prose or his examination of the economic effects of the Peace-Treaty is quite valueless if you have never read any Milton and do not know what the Peace-Treaty actually said. Discuss the books you read. If your husband or your wife is bored with your opinions (they very often are), persuade some friend to read the same books and talk them over. By discussion I mean discussion: not just saying, “Oh, I thought it was frightfully interesting, didn’t you?” Nor do I mean exchanging gossip about the author’s personality and private life and saying he must be a delightful (interesting, unpleasant, dangerous, irritating, fascinating, entertaining) person to know. (It is well to remember that the best of a writer’s energies goes into his writing; he may not have much charm or virtue left over for private use. This does not invalidate his opinions; it merely means that he is liable to be disappointing when encountered in person.)
And do please realise that words are not just “talky-talk” — they are real and vital; they can change the face of the world. They are a form of action — “in the beginning was the Word by Whom all things were made”. Even the spate of futile words that pours out from the ephemeral press and the commercial-fiction-mongers has a real and terrible power; it can become a dope as dangerous as drugs or drink; it can rot the mind, sap the reason, send the will to sleep; it can pull down empires and set the neck of the people under the heel of tyranny. “For every idle word that ye speak ye shall render account at the day of judgment.” I do not think that means that we shall have to pay a fine in a few million years’ time for every occasion on which we said “dash it all” or indulged in a bit of harmless frivolity; but I do think it was meant as an urgent warning against abusing or under-rating the power of words, and that the judgment is eternal — that is, it is here and now.