The Best Entries in ‘The Devil’s Dictionary’

The Paris Review

In my village, we have an idiom. “When’s last time you looked in on [X]—?”

“X” is always some acknowledged literary classic everybody reads early in life and then forgets. For example, More’s Utopia. I did read it, but I might as well not have. I was nineteen. Anyone today who had just read the back cover of a copy of Utopia would, in a knowledge contest, smoke me like a cheap cigar. About the book’s narrative I remember … well, nothing.

Wait. They didn’t think gold was valuable. I forget why. Their toilets were gold. Or the chains that they loaded prisoners with. Or something. Not toilets; chamberpots. And the narrator had some cross-eyed name like Holofernes Hwum-buppa-zipplebibble or something.

However! Suppose that I (prompted by shame) decided to engineer a little ol’ Utopia project. I pore over the book for a week and think, Huh—this is full of good stuff! At that point I would say to my neighbors, Hey, when’s last time you looked in on More’s Utopia—?

We’re like this in my village. Humane. We know very well that to read a book is not to have read it. Forgetting and noncomprehension must be given their due. And more than their due.

You’re about to reread The Mayor of Casterbridge. That’s excellent. Then you can remind me what happens in it. You just opened Paradise Lost to a random page and found something surprising? Do tell. I promise to be equally surprised. It’s been quite a while since I looked in on it.

All of which is to say it is especially frustrating to people from my village when critics or theorists write about literature with the assumption that the typical reader remembers everything. Or worse: that we not only remember everything but that we know where all the good stuff is in it.

When’s last you looked in on W. H. Auden’s preface to Shakespeare’s sonnets? Here’s a vexing bit:

On going through the hundred and fifty-four of them, I find forty-nine which seem to me excellent throughout, a good number of the rest have one or two memorable lines, but there are also several which I can only read out of a sense of duty.

Every time I think of this passage, I GET SO ANGRY. I’m like, Why, why, and why-why-why do you mention having picked out the forty-nine best, and then not tell us which ones you mean? What, you think I’m going to go through all 154 of those jumping-jack-doing, nine-dimension hieroglyphs, on the outside chance I can spontaneously regenerate your list?

To quote Gloucester in King Lear: “Give me the letter, Sir!”

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