The Timeliness of Books and the Insidiousness of Vanity

My TR Quote App came up with a great passage today.  Here it is along with some thoughts of mine about it:

“A book must be interesting to the particular reader at that particular time.  But there are tens of thousands of interesting books, and some of them are sealed to some men and some are sealed to others, and some stir the soul at some given point of a man’s life and yet convey no message at another time.  The reader, the booklover, must meet his own needs without paying too much attention to what his neighbors say those needs should be.  He must not hypocritically pretend to like what he does not like.  Yet, at the same time he must avoid that most unpleasant of all the indications of puffed-up vanity which consists in treating mere individual, and perhaps unfortunate, idiosyncrasy as a matter of pride.”  – from Teddy Roosevelt’s autobiography

This quote brings up a couple of points on which I’d like to remark: 1) The importance of timing in a book’s effectiveness and 2) how easily people become infected with various forms of vanity.  Concerning the first point, a novel called Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov comes to mind.  Among the classics, this work rates so low that I cannot in good conscience recommend it; but, it aided me a great deal in changing my attitude toward friendship and socializing with others, which rather approximated that of Squall from Final Fantasy VIII, Allanon of The Sword of Shanara, Raskolnikov of Crime and Punishment, or–to use a current reference from pop culture–Twilight Sparkle in the first episode of My Little Pony.  (And my readership suddenly plummets. 🙂  Let me just say that this is an amusing little show, and I’ve only watched four or five episodes.)

Squall’s the guy looking at his shoes in the lower left.

Ivan Goncharov’s only successful work spawned the term Oblomovism, which is defined as indolent apathy or benign self-neglect.  (Apparently, the Russian form of this word is still often used in that country.)  Oblomov, the main character of this story is said to have answered the question “To be or not to be?” by saying “No!”   This story contains a sagging middle and may be summed up as follows:

A young nobleman with a large inheritance spends his days collecting dust on his bed and only gets up to eat.  He also passes the time by complaining to his only valet–often about certain pests, to which his valet responds “Did I invent them?”  One day, a friend from his university days comes to see him.  Seeing his horrid state of indolence, he cajoles him to reenter society and read books, which Oblomov dutifully accomplishes until his friend leaves him for a time in order to do business.  Oblomov relapses into his indolence and cements this state by marrying a homely German woman who cooks good food.  His friend and his friend’s fiancee find Oblomov thus and lament that there is no longer any hope for him.  Oblomov vegetates in obscurity to his last days.

This rather lame sounding work moved me to tears!  Finishing this work the day before I left for college, I resolved not to end my days in a similar manner, and went on to form many friendships at college, being much more active than I would have been otherwise.  Unfortunately, I slipped back into a form of Oblomovism in my last two years of college which continued until May last year.  But, fear not, dear readers, my life has turned much more interesting since then and promises to become even more so in ten days.  And ironically, if my next steps in education turn out successful, I will not have to worry about slipping back into Oblomovism until retirement.

So, even though this work stands as one of the most influential in my life, I do not want to read it now and will not recommend it to anyone–unless you’re an Oblomov.

On to the second point: how easily people may be moved to vanity, especially concerning their tastes.  Concerning this kind of vanity, your writer happens to be rather guilty.  I can only console myself by remembering how G. K. Chesterton remarked that most men are made of petty vanities and, fortunately, most are harmless.  To use myself as an example again, I tend to prefer subs to dubs, but I pride myself at being willing to watch a good dub.  So, I consider myself a discriminating individual who doesn’t blindly prefer one or the other.  I particularly enjoy it when someone who refused to listen to my advice is forced to change the audio track after listening to what is usually an awful dub–though, there are times when the dub is really better.  In any event, this vanity leads to me being annoyed with the other viewer or viewers, silently grumbling against them, and maintaining an unchristian attitude of superiority.  But, I must confess that I don’t see an easy way out of this vanity besides refusing to watch foreign films with other people.  Any ideas?

And the inability of escaping from many forms of vanity without drastic change stands as one of the worst things about them.  If one considers this quotation from the Imitation of Christ: “Vanity of vanities and all is vanity, except to love God and serve Him alone,” this indicates that only lifestyles which are entirely focused on serving God can be entirely free of vanity.  Such lifestyles are characterized by poverty, self-sacrifice, charity, and self-effacement.  Any striving to gain one’s own comfort or to rejoice in one’s achievements or talents opens the door to vanity.  While the excellence of such a life is apparent to all, only a few achieve it perfectly, and these require special graces from God.  So, I suppose the most we weaklings can do is to recognize our vanity and not think too much of ourselves.

So, what books have come at opportune moments to change your life for the better?  Any vanities you want to share? 🙂

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One comment on “The Timeliness of Books and the Insidiousness of Vanity

  1. […] The Timeliness of Books and the Insidiousness of Vanity […]

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