“…there are other readers too, beautiful amateurs and skillful collectors of books, persons whose reading is wider than it is profound and more guided by love of adventure than by accepted critical opinion. These readers are almost completely immune to the fevers of contemporary fashions in reading, though they enjoy good new work equally with the older when they are certain they have found it.”
This is written by Fred Chappell, last of the great American men of letters – novelist, superb poet, critic and North Carolina raconteur – in “The Function of the Poet,” collected in Plowing Naked: Selected Writings on Poetry (University of Michigan Press, 1993). With a little revision, mostly pronouns, I’d like to have Chappell’s epitaph chiseled on my headstone.
He taxonomizes the sort of reader I am, for better (“beautiful amateurs”) or worse (“wider than it is profound”) – the sort who used to be called common readers, who have evolved into uncommon common readers, an always rare and now endangered species. That’s it: a reader “guided by love of adventure,” which calls for resourcefulness, a taste for the unknown and willingness to take risks. Perhaps the best way to clarify how I understand Chappell’s notion of the adventuresome reader is to catalog the books I’m reading, whether dutifully, line by line, cover to cover, or skimming for the useful bits. Besides Chappell’s essay/review collection, they include:
Crimson Confederates: Harvard Men Who Fought for the South, by Helen (Pinkerton) Trimpi (University of Tennessee Press, 2009).
The Tennessee, by Donald Davidson (two volumes, Rinehart & Company, 1946).
New Collected Poems, by Charles Tomlinson (Carcanet Press, 2009).
Dragonflies through Binoculars: A Field Guide to Dragonflies of North America, by Sidney W. Dunkle (Oxford University Press, 2000).
Deeply Dug In, by R.L. Barth (University of New Mexico Press, 2003).
Ode to the Sea and Other Poems, by Howard Baker (Alan Swallow, 1966).
And some others. From the last volume cited, here’s a sonnet titled “Dr. Johnson,” who advised Boswell “to have as many books about me as I could”:
“With what imperious `Sir!’ he devastated
Coherences relieved of miracles,
I do not know; nor how he demonstrated
That cornered doubters wore the stripe of trulls.
But that after all the hue and cry is done,
Though his the victory who defends the name
Of the Immortal Soul, what has he won?
Death not more lightly shakes the mortal frame.
“Like him we stand, watching a smoky sky.
The eye loosens, blurring with darkness, haunted
By memory of faces; syllables die
Along the draft, and the heaving blood is daunted
In a blue chill on flesh. No other terms,
We are all Boswells harkening the worms.”
If my bookish hunger were less unruly, if my immunity to “the fevers of contemporary fashions in reading” were compromised, if I read faddishly or out of guilt or self-aggrandizement, I might never have discovered Baker’s tribute to a formidable reader whom Terry Teachout recently called “my hero.” (Mine too.) Chappell goes on about his “beautiful amateurs”:
“These are the voluptuary taxonomists of literature. They read for pleasure, and the pleasure of reading has become so keen for them that they are eager but patient to discriminate, to enjoy as much as possible of every sort of literature, not merely the so-called respectable sort. They are able to immerse themselves in reading so earnestly, so longingly, that their experience of books is the best part of their experience of life, and finally these two experiences are joined as one, life and literature commenting upon one another at equal length and with equal authority.”