The lasting worth of ‘worthless’ books

Theodore Dalrymple in Standpoint:

Cyril Connolly once wrote: “The more books we read, the clearer it becomes that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence.” This is tosh, of course, for if every book were a masterpiece, no book would be a masterpiece and we could not know a masterpiece when we read it. They also serve who only sit and write trash. To know the good, we have to know the bad. The precise quantity and degree of the bad that we have to know in order to appreciate the good is debatable, and certainly there is no great difficulty in finding the bad, whether it be bad food, bad films, bad theatre productions, bad behaviour or bad books. Indeed, the only thing that can be said in favour of the current overwhelming prevalence of the bad is that it adds to the pleasure of finding the good — the piquancy both of discovery and relief.

But quite apart from the valuable function that the bad performs in helping us to appreciate the good, I would amend Connolly’s dictum as follows: the more books we read, the clearer it becomes that there is no book, however bad or merely mediocre it may be, that has nothing to say to us, for every book tells us something. Thus reading a book may be a relative waste of time, for we might be doing something better or more useful than reading it, such as reading a better book. But it is never a waste of time in the absolute sense, at least for the inquisitive or reflective mind. For the uninquisitve or unreflective mind, of course, Armageddon itself would be dull and without interest or lessons.

Every contact leaves a trace, said the great French forensic scientist, Edmond Locard; and likewise, every book tells us something (even if, unlike every crime, it appears to leave no trace). This is especially so for those, which is almost all of us, who have access to the internet.

More here.