Friday, July 08, 2011

`A Man Reads from Immediate Inclination'

For attentive readers, those for whom good books are never closed for good, one volume leads inevitably to another, creating the sensation that we’ve been reading one vast book all of our lives. In Samuel Johnson and the Life of Reading (1997), Robert DeMaria Jr. discusses two photographs on facing pages in André Kertész’s On Reading (1971) – “a priest reading a religious tome and a man reading a newspaper.” I’m not able to locate either image online, nor have I seen Kertész’s book.

DeMaria sorts Johnson’s book consumption into four categories and suggests they represent the ways all serious readers read: study, perusal, mere reading and curious reading. His discussion of the Kertész photos comes in the “Mere Reading” chapter. He says their juxtaposition “shows how the two acts of reading are different and yet the same.” The priest reads an antiphonal for the Mass. He is dressed in robes and the volume rests on a wooden lectern. DeMaria writes: “This surely is a high form of reading, a form of biblical hard reading.”
In the other photo, a man stands curbside near a lamppost, reading a newspaper he apparently pulled from the trash can next to him, “a hideously modern lectern, but a lectern nonetheless.” DeMaria says the man’s appearance is “somewhat rabbinical” and he displays “the same kind of concentration” as the priest. Without sentimentalizing either image, DeMaria writes:
“This pair of pictures is silent. It is impossible to be sure what kinds of reading are being experienced in them, but the outward similarities, despite the obvious differences, graphically suggest that reading matter is only one element and not the defining element in kinds of reading. Even newspaper reading can be hard reading, and not only for transcendentalists in the midst of experiencing `something far more deeply interfused.’
When I lived in Bellevue, Wa., several times a week I would see a man reading while he stood at the bus stop or outside the library. His appearance was ursine – tall and densely bearded, with wide shoulders and ample belly. He wore glasses with black frames and thick lenses, and held the book close to his face. In the other hand he held a cigarette – the reason he stood outside the library. He smoked and read with furious concentration, focused on the page six inches in front of his face. The book was always a mass-market paperback and always science fiction.
I’ve never smoked and I detest science fiction, but the sight of this guy, about forty years old and utterly solitary even in public, was always cheering. I liked his apparent disregard for appearances. I have no reason to think he was churlish or foul-tempered but neither did he invite small talk or even a greeting. He was autonomous and he was reading, a man and a book on an island. He read with the absorption of a scholar or child, and I can’t picture him without his face pushed into a book. Boswell reports the dictum  Johnson gave him on Monday, Sept. 22, 1777:
“Dr. Johnson advised me to-day, to have as many books about me as I could; that I might read upon any subject upon which I had a desire for instruction at the time. `What you have read then (said he,) you will remember; but if you have not a book immediately ready, and the subject moulds in your mind, it is a chance if you again have a desire to study it.’ He added, `If a man never has an eager desire for instruction, he should prescribe a task for himself. But it is better if a man reads from immediate inclination.’”
I lived by this advice long before reading Boswell or Johnson, so I've stocked books like canned goods and potable water in a fallout shelter. The caution against "mouldering" is well-advised. Distractions amass and memory frays. It's best to anticipate "immediate inclination."


Collin said...

I wonder what Johnson would make of the Internet.

Heather said...

I'm coincidentally now reading Samuel Johnson and the Life of Writing (1971) by Paul Fussell.

I love Kertész's On Reading. The two photographs DeMaria mentioned are included on this museum website:

One is Trappist Cloister...(priest reading a book of song), 1928; the other Park Avenue, NY, (man reading newspaper), 1959.

I love your weblog, by the way.