One way to recognize a civilized person is by the easy grace of his thought. Emotion is present but never predominant, tempered by reason, learning and good manners. Ideas flow effortlessly, often by spontaneous association. The stance is never aggressively ideological but leaves room for disagreement and elaboration. The thinking is open-ended, collaborative, generous, encouraging, confident, humorous and never pretentious. Consider two paragraphs from an e-mail I received Sunday from a retired professor of English:
“In my copy of E. H. Coleridge's edition of Coleridge's poems I found `My Godmother's Beard’ (Vol. 2, p.976), which includes such Chaucerian lines as, Pallas `bade a length of hair / In deep recess her muzzle hide’ and `To snatch a kiss were vain (cried Pallas) / Unless you first should shave your beard.’ The textual note tells us that this jeux d'esprit was inserted by the poet in Gillman's copy of `Omniana’ of 1812. Unfortunately someone showed it to his godmother `in consequence of which he was struck out of her will.’ Not the first of Coleridge's misjudgments -- nor his last.
"Sam, our beloved cat of 21 years, recently died. It, among other things, amazes me the hold a pet can have on one. Frank MacShane, in his biography of Raymond Chandler, tells us that Chandler's cat sat on his desk while he wrote. He never quite got over its death -- and his writing showed it. For comfort I turned not to Eliot but to Christopher Smart (I'd as soon pray with [the mad] Kit Smart as anyone, Johnson told Boswell), to `Of Jeoffry, His Cat’ from the `Jubilate Agno’: `For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry. etc.’ It's a wonderful work by very fine poet, one of the multitude of mad writers during the Age of Reason.”
I’m floored sometimes by my good fortune. Only through the gift of the internet and this belated blog was I introduced to such excellent people. Good common readers are out there, quietly reading and going about the rest of their business, feeling little or no compulsion to proselytize or otherwise behave like egotists. Here is an excerpt from another e-mail received on Sunday, this one from a Canadian reader:
“A while back, Patrick, you wrote about used bookstores, and I recalled that post when I recently visited my favourite in Vancouver after an absence of several years. This store has only the most rudimentary sorting system - barely alphabetical. The over-stuffed shelves and the stacks on the floor always made browsing there difficult, yet fun. There was no way of knowing what discovery you would make. Time and the internet have apparently taken their toll. The aisles were clear and empty and there were now empty areas on the shelves. It would appear that either the owners have curtailed their buying of used fiction or people no longer bring them to the store. I still found some interesting books: Bloodshed and Three Novellas by Cynthia Ozick; a collection of Ruskin's essays; and The Book of Daniel. Yet I was struck by several things. First, the new employees seem ignorant of how annoying it is to be repeatedly asked by a cheery, bubbly worker if I need help while browsing in a used bookstore. Second, as books are bought and not replaced it becomes easier to discern which authors have fallen out of favour with the contemporary reader. I found it a little sad to see so many novelists ignored. Row upon row of I, Claudius, Lawrence Durrell, Margaret Drabble, Galsworthy and Dickens. On the positive side, however, I couldn't see one Nabokov and only one Ford Madox Ford.”
A reader grateful for not finding books by writers he admires: That too is one way to define a civilized person. In contrast, I think of the heatedly competitive conversations, most often about politics or some backwater of popular culture, I’m often extorted into overhearing. I’m rereading a favorite family history, Bowen’s Court (1942) by Elizabeth Bowen. As she chronicles the fortunes of one Anglo-Irish family, we slowly realize we are witnessing the fall of an entire civilization into modernity:
“And to what did our fine feelings, our regard for the arts, our intimacies, our inspiring conversations, our wish to be clear of the bonds of sex and class and nationality, our wish to try to be fair to everyone bring us? To 1939.”