On The Shoulders Of Literary Giants

by Matt Sitman

William Giraldi hails Herman Melville as “one of the best American examples of how every important writer is foremost an indefatigable reader of golden books”:

In the general rare books collection at Princeton University Library sits a stunning two-volume edition of John Milton that once belonged to Herman Melville. Melville’s tremendous debt to Milton — and to Homer, Virgil, the Bible, and Shakespeare — might be evident to anyone who has wrestled with the moral and intellectual complexity that lends Moby Dick its immortal heft, but to see Melville’s marginalia in his 1836 Poetical Works of John Milton is to understand just how intimately the author of the great American novel engaged with the author of the greatest poem in English. Checkmarks, underscores, annotations, and Xs reveal the passages in Paradise Lost and other poems that would have such a determining effect on Melville’s own work.

His broader argument about the connection between deep reading and great writing:

Would Cervantes and Shakespeare have made their masterworks if they hadn’t been devoted readers? Perhaps. But I hope it goes without saying that the rest of us aren’t Cervantes and Shakespeare. Try to imagine a teenager who never read an important book and yet produced a novel as permanent as Middlemarch. It cannot be done. Literature isn’t music or painting; there are no idiot savants in literature. Of course quality reading never assures success on your own pages. Judging from his latest insult to trees, Dan Brown has apparently tried to read Dante, and yet his sentences are still stacked like so many corpses. Still, quality reading is the only chance born writers have of succeeding in the creation of art.