No Great Book Is Explicable

About the same time I was finishing up James Wood’s How Fiction Works, I was also beginning William Gaddis‘s massive tome The Recognitions. So far the book is fantastic–I’m about 180 pages in–but it’s (very, very) long and there’s a big stack of upcoming releases here that needs to be digested for review, so who knows if I’ll finish it anytime soon. Anyway, I thought this notation from William H. Gass‘s brilliant introduction does a fantastic job of speaking to both the limits of literary criticisms (like Wood’s) as well as underscoring the value of reading–and rereading:

No great book is explicable, and I shall not attempt to explain this one. An explanation–indeed, any explanation–would defile it, for reduction is precisely what a work of art opposes. Easy answers, convenient summaries, quiz questions, annotations, arrows, highlight lines, lists of its references, the numbers of its sources, echoes, and influences, an outline of its design–useful as sometimes such helps are–nevertheless seriously mislead. Guidebooks are useful, but only to what is past. Interpretation replaces the original with the lamest sort of substitute. It tames, disarms. “Okay, I get it,” we say, dusting our hands, “and that takes care of that.” “At least I understand Kafka” is a foolish and conceited remark.

Philip Guston Literally Paints Gass
Philip Guston Literally Paints William H. Gass

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