Saturday, May 07, 2011

`Like Treasure Buried and Forgotten'

In Samuel Johnson and the Life of Reading (1997), Robert De Maria Jr. divides Johnson’s book consumption into four categories and suggests they represent the ways all serious readers read: study, perusal, mere reading and curious reading. De Maria’s scheme appeals to my taste for non-dogmatic taxonomy, sorting the world into classes of things, lending it a sense of web-like relatedness. I say “non-dogmatic” because categories blur and we recognize them only after the fact.

On Friday, for instance, I continued reading the Selected Writings of Thomas Aquinas (1998), a Penguin paperback edited by the late Ralph McInerny. This constitutes “study” – slow reading, note taking, reflection. Study not in the undergraduate sense of cloistered cramming; rather, unwavering attentiveness and concentration. I don’t know any other way to read philosophy, assuming I want to understand and retain it.

“Perusal”: Selected rereading of The Poems of J.V. Cunningham (1997). Striking was a late poem (1966-67), “Montana Fifty Years Ago”:

“Gaunt kept house with her child for the old man,
Met at the train, dust-driven as the sink
She came to, the child white as the alkali.
To the West distant mountains, the Big Lake
To the Northeast. Dead trees and almost dead
In the front yard, the front door locked and nailed,
A handpump in the sink. Outside, a land
Of gophers, cottontails and rattlesnakes,
In good years of alfalfa, oats and wheat.
Root cellar, blacksmith shop, milk house, and barn,
Granary, corral. An old World Almanac
To thumb at night, the child coughing, the lamp smoked,
The chores done. So he came to her one night,
To the front room, now bedroom, and moved in.
Nothing was said, nothing was ever said.
And then the child died and she disappeared.
This was Montana fifty years ago.”

Reading Cunningham once constituted study, especially of the early poems, cryptic in their concision, those his editor, Timothy Steele, calls “overly dense.” Study, ideally, with time and devotion, turns into perusal.

“Mere reading”: The May issue of The New Criterion, the only magazine I subscribe to, always a non-guilty pleasure. John Talbot, in “Classic Carne-Ross,” devoted to the late critic, classicist and anthologist D.S. Carne-Ross (whose Horace in English sits on my desk), writes:

“George Steiner called him one of the great readers of literature in modern history—Steiner put him on a list that included Montaigne, Coleridge, Heidegger, Nabokov, and Empson. He was also a superb prose stylist.”

“Curious reading”: The Rambler essays of Dr. Johnson. Curiosity is among the reasons I’m rereading them, this time in sequence, a few each day. Can one be curious about a text one has already read many times and knows in some detail? Of course. The best reading is always rereading, for one is simultaneously reading several texts, distributed over time. Johnson writes in The Rambler #87:

“We see that volumes may be perused, and perused with attention, to little effect; and that maxims of prudence, or principles of virtue, may be treasured in the memory without influencing the conduct. Of the numbers that pass their lives among books, very few read to be made wiser or better, apply any general reproof of vice to themselves, or try their own manners by axioms of justice. They purpose either to consume those hours for which they can find no other amusement, to gain or preserve that respect which learning has always obtained; or to gratify their curiosity with knowledge which, like treasure buried and forgotten, is of no use to others or themselves.”

Of the final sin Johnson names, I hope I may be forgiven.

[ADDENDUM: Dave Lull suggests we peruse this.]

1 comment:

George said...

At one point 20 or so years ago, when I had very little time for reading at my own discretion, I found J.V. Cunningham just the poet to read, late at night. I expect I read through the century of epigrams three or four times. I suppose my favorite, though, is not an epigram but "Monday Morning".

One can't read philosophy any other way than you describe.