What the Good Books Do

I’m going back through William Gass’s new book, A Temple of Texts: Essays, for review-writing purposes. I’ve revisited only the first piece, “To a Young Friend Charged With Possession of the Classics,” and I already have no choice but to share something. Gass had been listing possible reasons we love to warm ourselves in the “glow” of the classics – perhaps the authors were fine human beings? perhaps the books uphold the finest values? – then dismissing those reasons with examples (Balzac, The Iliad). He ends the essay this way:

They will not do us any good – the good books – no – if by good we mean good looks, good times, good shoes; yet they still offer us salvation, for salvation does not wait for the next life, which is anyhow a vain and incautious delusion, but is to be had, if at all, only here – in this one. It is we who must do them honor by searching for our truth there, by taking their heart as our heart, by refusing to let our mind flag so that we close their covers forever, and spend our future forgetting them, denying the mind’s best moments. They extend the hand; we must grip it. Spinach never made Popeye strong sitting in the can. And the finest cookbook ever compiled put not one pot upon the stove or dish upon the table. Here, in the library that has rendered you suspect, you have made their acquaintance – some of the good books. So now that you’ve been nabbed for it, you must become their lover, their friend, their loyal ally. But that is what the rest of your life is for. Go now, break jail, and get about it.