What we read matters. It shapes our mind, challenges our ideas, and opens up that intuitive space between the terror of being alive and the logic needed to survive, where all great things happen. As the Chinese say, it’s the space in the bowl that makes it useful. What we read shapes that space.
Captain Ahab, that vengeful seeker puffed with “fatal pride,” simply could not have been imagined without Milton’s Satan, paragon of seditiousness and the heroic sublime. Both tragic heroes are solipsists and madmen who believe that God is an ill-mannered lunatic undeserving of his reign, and yet both evoke our best sympathy in their epic struggles. Ahab knows he is as “proud as Lucifer” and “damned in the midst of Paradise,” and he shares Satan’s mytho-maniacal poeticism: “I leave a white and turbid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where’er I sail. The envious billows sidelong swell to whelm my track; let them; but first I pass.”
The Writer as Reader: Melville and his Marginalia by William Giraldi, Los Angeles Review of Books, 18 August 2013
For writers, what we read matters even more, because it shapes what we create.
I’ve read Richmond Lattimore’s translation of the Illiad and the Odyssey a dozen times. It hasn’t just shaped my appreciation of literature, classics, or the Western mind. It’s shaped me.
Likewise, I’ve read Victor Harris’ translation of the Go Rin no Sho (Book of Five Rings) dozens of times — it’s brief — and Wiliam Scott Wilson’s translation of Hagakure (Hidden beneath Leaves) probably a dozen times, in pieces. They’ve shaped me, too.
Echoes of each will be in everything I write, not simply because I read them — I’ve read crap that only impacts on the surface of my skull and never penetrates — but because I have soaked my mind in them.
We’re all tainted by the art we love.
Choose your lovers well.