Monday, December 22, 2008

`The Habits of a Lifetime'

Dr. Johnson was a gourmand or libertine of the written word. In Samuel Johnson: The Struggle, Jeffrey Meyers (like his precursors, Boswell and Bate) often uses gustatory or sexual metaphors or situations to describe Johnson’s hunger/lust for books. Here’s a typical passage:

“Johnson, who used Turks to represent extreme fanaticism or sexual license, said that when sleepless in bed he read like a Turk. He devoured books with deadly seriousness, in the same way that he devoured food. He’d often keep a book on his lap while dining, a habit that Boswell cheekily compared to a dog holding a bone in its paws while chewing on scraps. Most of Sam’s boyhood reading was serendipitous rather than systematic, and he often made interesting discoveries. One day, when he thought Natty had hidden some apples behind a large folio on a high shelf, he climbed up to look for them and instead found a volume of Petrarch’s poems. Having heard that Petrarch was a Renaissance restorer of classical learning, he immediately sat down and read the book.”

I understand Johnson’s hunger. My sons and I share it. They, too, read with books in their laps or propped on the table, during meals, though we discourage this when company comes. Not everyone understands. People who don’t read or read only for utilitarian ends – say, stop signs – are baffling. In an e-mail Jared Carter, a poet living in Indianapolis, writes “I think the time of books draws to a close. I have a lighthearted poem about this…which only partially masks my deeper sorrow.” Here is Carter’s poem, “Saying Goodbye”:

“The time came when Words had to leave,
to go on to the next place. Words decided
to go visit Books, in order to say goodbye.
Everyone else – Images, Colors, Sounds –
had already gone ahead. Words inquired
at the desk, and was told that most days
Books would be sitting in a wheel-chair,
on a glassed-in porch, looking at the trees.
The room was down a narrow hallway.
Words had brought a half-pint of bourbon.
He found two plastic cups, poured a shot
for each of them, and sat down on a bench
not far from where Books was gazing out.
Books turned and saw that he was there.
He said nothing but took the offered cup.
For a moment they held their cups high,
then tossed down the shots. `Thanks,’
Books said, with a smile. `I needed that.’
He waved toward the trees. `Squirrels.
I like the way they chase about. Graceful.’
Words nodded. They watched for a while.
Near the crown of an oak, two fox squirrels
careered along the narrow limbs, shaking
the leaves. Books laughed. `I like trees, too.
Always have. I imagine they’ll do better now,
once I’m finally gone.’ `Don’t talk that way,’
Words said. `You’ll always be here. Besides,
you’re about to enter your greatest period.
Unparalleled. Timeless. Museum quality.
That’s what they’ll say about your best work.’
Books turned back to the squirrels again.
After a minute or two he spoke up. `They say
you’ve got a new place.’ `Yes.’ `Well,
that’s good. I’m glad to hear it. Listen,
any time now they’re going to come in here
and make me take some awful medicine.
Give me another shot of whisky, OK?’
He held out the cup, and Words poured
another shot. Books nodded and took a sip.
`Thanks. Now you’d better be on your way.’
Words got up. He clasped Books’s free hand.
`Go on,’ Books said. `Get out of here.
It’s time. You take care of yourself, OK?’
Words nodded, and left the room. Outside,
the squirrels had disappeared. High up,
where they had been scampering about,
a myriad of leaves still moved in the wind.”

I was not surprised that Carter’s poem made me laugh but was surprised that I found it so touching and sad. In reply I wrote to the poet:

“You say `I think the time of books draws to a close’ with some confidence, but I can’t make up my mind about that idea. A serious interest in books has always been a minority taste. By nature I’m an anti-utopian and pretty grim-minded, but I think a lively underground of readers and writers has a chance of flourishing with the aid of the Internet. We’re only just beginning to learn what it will look like – perhaps we’re forging some of the `rules’ right now. I’m not a technologically adept person and I’m a natural-born skeptic, but I also know I’ve made some excellent friends thanks to the blog. It’s not the same as sitting around the dining room table shooting the shit but it’s gratifying and I’ve learned a hell of a lot. I wouldn’t have predicted this a decade ago.”

Rereading my reply, I’m embarrassed by the quasi-optimism but I’ll stand by it. A professor and reading researcher at a university in Connecticut wrote several months ago asking if she could quote something I’d written about children and books. We exchanged a few notes and my thoughts boiled down to something simple: Kids generally do what they see the adults in their lives doing. Values are acquired, in part, from watching the actions of others. If you read, your kids are likelier to read. It beats nagging, threats and platitudes. Meyers writes in the paragraph preceding the one quoted above:

“Sam was bred a bookseller and never forgot his trade. Later in life he picked up a book in Lichfield and saw that he had bound it himself [his father, Michael Johnson, was an improvident book dealer in Lichfield]. But he disliked serving in the shop, and when people complained that he remained absorbed in his books instead of serving them, he loftily replied `that to supersede the pleasures of reading, by the attentions of traffic, was a task he could never master.’ He had no intention of changing the habits of a lifetime to satisfy the whims of customers.”

1 comment:

elberry said...

i visited his home in Lichfield a few years back. i had a job interview there (i was rejected, inevitably) and wandered about the city for a while. There are lots of horrible new shops, a big mall, etc., but parts are (i guess) pretty much as it was in his day.