How T. S. Eliot Found a Book That Changed His Life

“Your true educators and cultivators will reveal to you the original sense and basic stuff of your being”, wrote Friedrich Nietzsche—“something that is not ultimately amenable to education or cultivation by anyone else.” Nietzsche’s essay (which I’ve quoted often) is in one sense a paean to Arthur Schopenhauer, who changed his life. In another sense it is a description of the power of a single book and a single thinker to shape us and change the course of our lives, if we are lucky enough to come across them.

I’ve been reading a great deal of T. S. Eliot lately, and in one biography came across a Nietzschean description of how Eliot found his educator.

Where for Nietzsche it was Schopenhauer (a man whose philosophy grew out of an awful first job), for Eliot it is Jules Laforgue, the French symbolist poet who died the year before Eliot was born. In 1908, when Eliot was twenty, he went to the Harvard Union Library, one of his favourite spots for reading. Crawford describes in his biography:

T S Eliot poetry Jules Laforgue Nietzsche educator“There, upstairs, warmly protected from the December weather outside, he (Eliot) was looking through recently received books. Alert University library staff helped stock the Union’s shelves. Tom’s eye was caught by the name of Arthur Symons, and by his book’s title, The Symbolist Movement in Literature. It was a small second edition published earlier that year and just imported from London…”

Much later in his Paris Review Interview Eliot would describe that book by Symons as one that introduced him to Laforgue and therefore changed the course of his life.

Robert Crawford describes in his biography of Eliot how

“Before late 1908, Tom had never heard of Laforgue. By late 1909 he was almost his reincarnation. The experience was like falling in love. A decade later, when his marriage was in trouble, Tom used strikingly erotic language to describe the vital, transformational reading, implying, perhaps, that (though the object of attention was a dead man) it had been better than falling in love. 

Eliot described the process by saying,

“When a young writer is seized with his first passion of this sort he may be changed, metamorphosed almost, within a few weeks, from a bundle of second-hand sentiments into a person.”

It is a Nietzschean description of a true educator—an experience we should all hope to have. Crawford certainly believes that had Eliot not stumbled across Symons’ book on French symbolist poetry in the Harvard Union, he never would have become the poet he was. This reminds me of a quotation of Mark Greif, who in an essay on his own educator, philosopher Stanley Cavell, said that “What matters in a book is that it is the book you need, not where in the library it may be found.”

What Books Should We Read?: The Ones We Need, No Matter Where We Find Them

The popular blog Farnam Street, run by Shane Parrish, recently published a post arguing that we should try our best to read the books that other people are not reading:

What books should we read? Shane Parrish, Farnam Street, Haruki Murakami
I disagree.

“Most of us read the wrong things. As Haruki Murakami put it, reading what everyone else reads means you’re probably going to think what everyone else thinks. All those books from high-school? Everyone else has read them too. The best-sellers? Same

That’s not to say these books aren’t valuable. They are. They’re just not going to help you get unique insights, see problems in a different way than others, or even help you solve more problems. They will however make you sound like you’re smart because you can talk about the things everyone else is talking about. However, there is an old adage that when you do what everyone else is doing you shouldn’t be surprised to get the same results everyone else gets.”

Most of what Parrish writes is useful and insightful, but this was one of those things that I felt missed the mark. It takes a short-sighted view of reading, one that I think diminishes the reasons why we read, and encourages a zero-sum approach to books.

Do you remember the books you read in high school? Do you remember how you were changed by them, what insights they offered you in your life? I’m guessing most of us don’t; and if we do remember the books, the insights we gleaned at age 18 or younger probably aren’t those that we would glean today. We most likely focussed on themes in a book that we could recite in an essay, or sections that a teacher encouraged us to focus on.

When we read a book we read it with a certain lens on. Any great book has too many important revelations and insights on human nature for us to interpret or remember them all. We need a set of lenses in order to make sense of what we read, and to be able to ever finish a book. But those lenses themselves change over time. Shane reads with a productivity lens on; I read with an education/humanities lens on. At different periods in our lives we might try to find insights on relationships and love, careers and work, money and envy, old age and death. Our reading of a book would be different from one day to the next, let alone if spaced out by a year or more.

That’s why we will underline different passages in a book on our second reading to the first. With each additional reading, we gain different things from it. We are changed in different ways.

And we can never read every book in the world. Far better to re-read ten times the book that spoke to us in a fundamentally meaningful way (even if it’s a book everyone else is reading), than to read ten other books that may not change us at all, even if they are obscure and not being read by anyone.

The other reality is that most people don’t read properly. They read to finish a book; and they read to discover the passage that they heard quoted beforehand. But just because one passage is often-quoted does not mean it is the part of a book that will be most useful to you. I’ve often read up to a very frequently quoted section of a book and not even remembered that I’d heard the quote somewhere before; it just didn’t match what I needed from a book at this time.

Read a book slowly, and it will seem as if you read a different book to the person who read it quickly. Read it in a certain location, even, and you will get something else entirely out of it. Books are different for each person, no matter how many people read them.

It does not matter if you find a book on the bestseller list, or if it is the book that everyone else is reading. What matters is that it is the book that speaks to you, and helps you live your life. To worry, like Shane Parrish does in his post, that you are reading something that others are also reading is to miss some of the best that has ever been written. It is to read to be different, rather than reading to live a better life.

It doesn’t matter what books you read—it could be the same as everyone else—if you read it properly, read it with a certain focus, and look for what parts of the book are not the most often quoted, but are the most useful to your life.

This reminds me of a quote by one of my favourite essayists, Mark Greif:

“What matters in a book is that it is the book you need, not where in the library it may be found.”

That seems to me to be perennially true. The best thing we can do is read for ourselves, and not at all worry about what others are reading.