Monday, April 05, 2010

`A Good Head Cannot Read Amiss'

I had just finished a conversation with a retired aerospace engineer who volunteers in the Space Exploration room at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (we disagreed over the reasons for the premature demise of the Apollo program), when I read for the first time in at least 45 years the Classics Illustrated version of H.G. Wells’ The War of the World. The museum keeps a laminated copy in the space room and I stood there reading it with my 9-year-old and another boy of about the same age. I recognized panels on every page, in particular one near the end depicting human collaborators hunting down their fellows.

The comic, No. 124 in the series, was first published in 1955 when I turned three, and I probably first read it around 1959 or 1960. I accumulated dozens of Classics Illustrated comics alongside Batman, Superman and the usual super heroes. I would have started reading Wells’ science-fiction novels when I was about 10, and outgrew them within two years or so, and the rest of science fiction by 1965. I have no regrets about reading the genre at its (and my) appropriate age. Our reading is always evolving. What once compelled soon leaves us indifferent, especially when we are young. Robert D. Richardson puts it like this in First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process:

“When we read actively, we can profit from anything. `A good head cannot read amiss,’ said Emerson. `In every book he finds passages which seem confidences or asides, hidden from all else, and unmistakably meant for his ear. No book has worth by itself, but by the relation to what you have from many other books, it weighs.’”

Without the appropriate reader, a book is inert and incomplete. Seasoned readers know the sensation of coming home to a book they are reading for the first time.


Dave Lull said...

In his review of Richardson's book, John Banville wrote of Emerson:

"He flicked cavalierly through the most urgently demanding tomes, picking up magpie-fashion the more glittering ideas and observations."

Zeke said...

Somewhere I read an Emerson quotation to the effect that a writer deserves a reader who will bring the same effort (and creativity) to his reading that the author did to writing the book. Does anyone know this quote?