On July 24, 1965, less than three months before his death, Randall Jarrell published “Speaking of Books,” ostensibly a list of suggestions for summer reading, in The New York Times Book Review. The essay, in fact, is a distillation of a life’s engagement with books. Read with the knowledge of Jarrell’s imminent death, it’s a poignant human document but we shouldn’t allow poignancy to diminish its worth as a paean to passionate reading:
“I have trouble knowing what to do at parties. Prisoners tame mice, or make rings out of spoons: I analyze people's handwriting -- Pierre Emmanuel taught me, saying: `It will help you’ -- or else ask you to tell me what you read when you were a child. (People speak unusually well of the books of their childhood, don't they? Or is this one more life-giving illusion?) I love to see a hard eye grow soft over Little Women, or The Black Arrow, or Grandma Elsie -- yes, Elsie Dinsmore became a grandmother. And, I've found, there's no children's book so bad that I mind your having liked it: about the tastes of dead children there is no disputing.”
Frustratingly, I remember few titles from my earliest reading years. I’ve salvaged a studio photograph of myself, in jumper and white high-tops, holding Baby Animal Friends. Was the book mine or a photographer’s prop? Some early titles: Blueberries for Sal and Paddle-to-the-Sea. Street Rod. The Hardy Boys and the Mystery of the Chinese Junk, A Child’s Garden of Verses. Edgar Rice Burroughs, American history, a biography of Davy Crockett, Jules Verne, field guides and books about the American presidents. A little later, Robinson Crusoe (allow me to recommend it still, and Elizabeth Bishop’s “Crusoe in England”), H.G. Wells, science fiction -- but in general I was a committed non-fiction man.
“The live grown-ups are different. Readers, real readers, are always telling other readers what to read; and according to what it is, they use a different tone -- they know that they are about to be judged. `Always speak your mind and base men will avoid you,’ Blake said. Always say what you like and readers who know what they should like will look at you silently and then tell you what you should like, too. Once I told a critic -- since he was standing in a railway station, wearing a cream-colored corduroy suit, he looked remarkably like that Disraeli-ish figure, dressed all in newspapers, whom you see in Through the Looking Glass -- about a wonderful novel named The Man Who Loved Children. (I've been getting people to read it for ten years, with the most dazzling results; so many have bought it for themselves that Simon & Schuster wrote one a letter, saying: `Would you be kind enough to tell us how you happened to order this particular book? In recent years there has been a small but steady demand for it.’ A sort of despairing contempt filled the critic's eyes, and he cried: `But -- but -- but that's absurd! That isn't a good novel, it couldn't be! I haven't read it, but I know the sort of author she is, and it couldn't be. Why, she's a Stalinist!’”
I hope I never tell anyone what to read. A highly regarded novel by a writer I admire came out last year and I bought a copy but still haven’t read it because so many people told me I had to. Jarrell’s advocacy for Stead’s novel (it was republished in 1965, 25 years after its first appearance, with his introduction) first moved me to read it. Stead was certainly, for periods of her life, a sui generis species of Marxist but you would never know that from reading The Man Who Loved Children (or Letty Fox: Her Luck, or House of All Nations, which I also recommend).
“This may have been a great injustice to Christina Stead, and it was a small injustice to me: if we jump on readers who recommend to us some unlikely thing they've liked, they get apologetic -- soon the gentler ones will only say to themselves softly, in bed that night: `I wish I'd told him about The Man Who Loved Children.' But there is a Pope in the breast of each of us whom it is hard to silence. Long ago a lady said to me, when I asked her the composers she liked: `Dvorak.’ I said before I could stop myself: `Dvorak!’ How many times, and with what shame, I've remembered it! And now I like Dvorak and Tchaikovsky and, even, the creator of the `Weihnachtsbaum,’ the `Vallee d'Obermann,’ and the `Hungarian Rhapsodies’ which Edith Farnadi plays so beautifully -- that banal and individual genius Liszt.”
One pleasant byproduct of growing older is the waning potency of one’s snobbery. I don’t care what other people choose to enjoy, so long as they don’t inflict it on me. I love Dvorak (and I would recommend Josef Skvorecky’s novel Dvorak in Love: A Light-Hearted Dream).
“`Liszt!’ I know, I know; it was because of the `Liszt!’ that I used that periphrasis, those adjectives -- I should have told you that my favorite quartet is Opus 130 (with the `Grosse Fugue’ as the last movement, of course) in a very different tone. And yet, what good tone is there for Beethoven and Shakespeare and Spinoza and Proust and Rilke? They are no better, and we no better thought of, for our admiration; but still we admire. And when I recommend the second book of `The Excursion,’ or speak of Wordsworth as one of the three or four greatest of English poets, I don't mind having the remark thought either a truism or an absurdity: I feel Matthew Arnold's approving breath at my shoulder, and see out before me, smiling bewitchingly, the nations of the not-yet-born.”
This is where Jarrell’s essay turns intensely personal for me. Except for Liszt, all the names he cites in this paragraph hover somewhere in my private pantheon. One of the things, besides his sense of humor (allow me to recommend Pictures from an Institution), that attracted me to Jarrell’s essays is the heavy overlap of our tastes. In my experience, that’s rare with critics, though Christopher Ricks is another such kindred spirit (I recommend Beckett’s Dying Words). “The nations of the not-yet-born” cracks me up.
“I regularly recommend Saltykov-Shchedrin's The Golovlyov Family; it makes me feel like Chaliapin just to say it. And recommending Kant's The Critique of Judgment, reader, is its own reward. A fresh, candid tone is best. Strauss told conductors to play Elektra `as if it were A Midsummer Night's Dream -- like fairy music’; that is how I recommend The Critique of Judgment.”
I first read The Golovlyov Family while sick with food poisoning in a Philadelphia hotel room, and loved it. I would recommend it, though Jarrell loses me with Kant.
“May I finish by recommending -- in no tone -- some books for summer reading? Giradoux's Electra; Bemelman's Hotel Splendide; Kim; Saint-Simon's Memoirs; Elizabeth Bishop's North and South; the new edition of A.L. Kroeber's textbook of anthropology, and Ralph Linton's The Study of Man; Turgenev's A Sportsman's Sketches; Colette's Julie de Carneilhan and The Last of Cheri; Pirandello's Henry IV; Freud's Collected Papers; Peter Taylor's The Widows of Thornton; Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa; Goethe's aphorisms; Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell"; Gerard Manley Hopkins' Letters to Robert Bridges; Rilke's The Notebooks of Malte Laurid Brigge, and Chekhov's plays, stories, letters -- anything.”
The only bookish things that leave me more indifferent than “best-of” lists are the winners of literary prizes and awards. But I love reading lists like Jarrell’s. I want to know a serious reader’s favorite books, the ones he would suggest other serious readers read, the ones he rereads himself. On Jarrell’s list, I’ve not read the Giradoux, Kroeber, Linton and most of the Freud. I like the variety of his choices. How many poet’s today, assembling a comparable list, would recommend so few poets? I love the Turgenev, Colette, Taylor and Hopkins. I love Kim. And Chekhov, of course – “anything.”
Allow me to recommend Because I Was Flesh, Rasselas, The Death of Adam, Watt, The Collected Prose of Marianne Moore, Dead Souls, Loving, Specimen Days, Sakhalin Island, Son of the Morning Star, Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, The Belly of Paris, “Mary Postgate,” The Sweet Science, Stoner, A Woman of Means, Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion, Seize the Day, Parade's End, The Poems of J.V. Cunningham, The Third Policeman, Praeterita, The Habit of Being, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, The Noise of Time, “What Maisie Knew,” Jakob von Guten, the stories of J.F. Powers, Mercian Hymns, The Radetzky March, Put Out More Flags, Millions of Strange Shadows, The Second Life of Art, Centuries of Meditation, My Century, The Voyage of the Beagle, Poor White, “The Spinoza of Market Street” and a thousand more.