“There are as many different kinds of good book as there are different kinds of good writer. Each has something to give us. We should admire each in so far as he strikes us as good in his particular kind.”
In order properly to appreciate good writing we need to cultivate a point of view from which a work’s aesthetic qualities occupy our centre vision. This happens naturally with other art forms such as music, where the appeal is purely aesthetic. With literature, we can benefit from instruction in how to read.
Such instruction has rarely been delivered more elegantly than in The Fine Art of Reading, which was David Cecil’s inaugural lecture as Goldsmiths’ Professor of English Literature at Oxford in 1949. The work combines the author’s hallmark attention to detail with accessibility to a general audience. Cecil describes how we all might develop a “faculty of appreciation” – by approaching a piece of literature in an appropriate way; by learning to understand the language in which the work is written; and by broadening our aesthetic sympathies and expanding our taste.
Cecil assesses the relative merits of great authors and poets such as Milton, Gray and Shelley, while stressing that the only important distinction is between good and bad art. Proper reading is an art in itself and in this fine essay David Cecil shows himself to be the consummate artist and instructor.
David Cecil (1902-86), scholar and biographer, was educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford. He was Goldsmiths’ Professor of English Literature at Oxford, 1948-69, and his many works include a study of William Cowper, a life of Melbourne, A Portrait of Jane Austen and The Cecils of Hatfield House.