Wednesday, May 19, 2004

While flying, I was pondering the value of reading books that lie. I'm not speaking of misrepresentations or unreliable narrators, but of books that are objectively false or deceptive. This was precipitated by a resurgence of my desire to read Robert Graves's The White Goddess, which my classics professor specifically instructed us not to read due to its taking such a great degree of poetic license with the source material. I can understand why he told us not to pick it up; there is always the tendency to remember something you've read without recalling its origin, which might lead one to remember fiction as truth (especially if it was represented as truth by the author!).

A similar problem came up after historians had attacked Michael Bellesiles's Arming America; some suggested that copies in libraries should be corrected in some way, or at least marked to indicate that the sources had since been discredited. Does such a work have value independent of the facts it represents? Should it remain in libraries as an artifact of its time and culture? While Graves's book almost certainly has artistic merit apart from its theories about pagan cultures, a book like Arming America probably does not. Where, though, is the line? When do such books become worthy of reading, despite their inaccuracies?

And should I read The White Goddess? Anyone who has can vote in the comments thread. A warning: my memory is abysmal, so I am quite likely to absorb some nonsense he's made up and regurgitate it years down the line as gospel truth, so it better be very good to compensate for my future of humiliating corrections at the hands of others.
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