Certain long-ago encounters with books, magazines and even newspapers carry with them, in memory, a sort of golden aura. One fondly recalls the work and the setting in which it was first enjoyed as “spots in time,” to use Wordsworth’s phrase, charged with an ineffable glow of pleasure. I remember, in 1985, reading Gary Giddins’ hommage to Jack Benny, “This Guy Wouldn’t Give You the Parsley Off His Fish,” in the journal Grand Street. It arrived in the mail and I took it with me to the late, lamented Third Street Cinema in Rensselaer, N.Y., and read it while waiting for the feature, Utu, to begin. I always loved Benny and Giddins’ essay is so beautifully written (it was included in his 1992 volume Faces in the Crowd), I was irritated when the film started to roll. To top it off, the movie was lousy.
I also remember reading Guy Davenport’s essay “On Reading” as it first appeared in the Fall 1987 issue of Antaeus. My oldest son was born that August, and that may have contributed to my heightened receptiveness to bliss. The journal had arrived in the mail and, for some reason, I was eating dinner alone in a Japanese restaurant housed in an A-frame structure resembling a ski lodge, just north of Albany, N.Y. Reading a favorite writer on reading is already pleasure doubled, but my pleasure unexpectedly quadrupled on Sunday when I reread the essay, collected in Davenport’s The Hunter Gracchus.
In the pertinent passage, Davenport recalls how he first became aware of style in writing while reading Hendrik Van Loon’s “whimsical history of the world” (presumably The Story of Mankind), which led him to Van Loon’s biography of Rembrandt, in which he first encountered the name of Baruch de Spinoza. That reference, in turn, sent him to Will Durant, who finally sent him directly to Spinoza’s work. Davenport picks it up at that point:
“…and all fellow readers who have ever taken a book along to a humble restaurant will understand my saying that life has few enjoyments as stoical and pure as reading Spinoza’s Ethics, evening after evening, in a strange city – St. Louis, before I made friends there. The restaurant was Greek, cozy, comfortable, and for the neighborhood. The food was cheap, tasty, and filling.
“Over white beans with chopped onions, veal cutlet with a savory dressing, and eventually a fruit cobbler and coffee, I read the De Ethica in its Everyman edition, Draftech pen at the ready to underline passages I might want to refind easily later. Soul and mind were being fed together. I have not eaten alone in a restaurant in many years, but I see others doing it and envy them.”
That’s the quadrupling I mentioned: Rereading an essay by a favorite writer writing about reading a favorite book (his, mine) for the first time in a restaurant, that I first read in another restaurant. That’s convoluted but the pleasure is simple and intense.
I have a dim recollection of first reading Spinoza on West 25th Street in Cleveland, seated on a CTS bus, but no golden glow is attached to it. Like Guy, I seldom eat alone in restaurants anymore, but restaurants are the setting for several bookish memories:
Reading Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones for the first time in a Greek restaurant in a Bowling Green, Ohio, strip mall; Raymond Sokolov’s life of A.J. Liebling in a Rax roast-beef-sandwich joint in Richmond, Ind.; and Jack Fruchtman’s life of Thomas Paine in an Indian restaurant in Schenectady, N.Y.
Interesting that Guy writes “Soul and mind were being fed together,” not “body and soul.”