Among my readers is an 81-year-old retired professor of English who lives with his wife in the Midwest. I’ve previously described his bedtime regimen of reading a Shakespeare sonnet or one of Keats’ letters on alternating nights, but now he has modified his strategy of civilized hedonism and moved on to Keats’ poems. He was also planning to read Brad Gooch’s recent biography of Flannery O’Connor until – well, let him explain:
“…but [I] got sidetracked by Liebling's Between Meals. My wife (she's feeling much better, by the way) and I both find ourselves rereading it about once a year. She started again, quoting from it, so I'm off also. He has a genius for making the most trivial things seem important.”
The professor exemplifies the sort of sensibility I most admire -- well-stocked and elastic, unmindful of fashion, allergic to freeze-dried thinking and stinginess of spirit. Elsewhere in his e-mail he writes of Cowper (“very rewarding, both the verse and the man”), Beckett and Coleridge (“in my permanent personal anthology”). He adds, bless his heart: “And don't get me started on Shelley!”
In the introduction to Nonrequired Reading, her collected reviews of unabashedly unliterary books, the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska explains why she couldn’t write conventional reviews and didn’t want to:
“…I am and wish to remain a reader, an amateur, and a fan, unburdened by the weight of ceaseless evaluation. Sometimes the book itself is my subject; at other times it’s just a pretext for spinning out various loose associations. Anyone who calls these pieces sketches will be correct. Anyone insisting on `reviews’ will incur my displeasure.”
Don’t mistake Szymborska for an I-know-what-I-like-dammit Philistine. Her decades of newspaper reviews are funny, unpretentious and quietly subversive of accepted literary fashions. She has, as my friend says of Liebling, “a genius for making the most trivial things seem important.” She is, in short, an excellent essayist. Later in her introduction she might be writing of the retired professor and thousands of other dedicated readers:
“I’m old-fashioned and think that reading books is the most glorious pastime that humankind has yet devised…Homo Ludens with a book is free. At least as free as he’s capable of being. He himself makes up the rules of the game, which are subject only to his own curiosity. He’s permitted to read intelligent books, from which he will benefit, as well as stupid ones, from which he may also learn something. He can stop before finishing one book, if he wishes, while starting another at the end and working his way back to the beginning. He may laugh in the wrong places or stop short at words that he’ll keep for a lifetime. And, finally, he’s free – and no other hobby can promise this – to eavesdrop on Montaigne’s arguments or take a quick dip in the Mesozoic.”
Szymborska turns 86 later this year, the professor is pushing 82, and they’re just the sort of octogenarians I hope to become.