Saturday, November 19, 2011

`All Our Ladies Read Now'

Another flight to Seattle, another calibration of print requirements: How to carry sufficient reading matter to fill the four-hour-and-forty-minute flight, plus time seated in the terminal, but not over-burden one’s self with cargo, and yet to budget thirty minutes or so for the crossword puzzle in the airline magazine? Such are the trials facing the savvy traveler, especially one accustomed to reading three or four books simultaneously, and who likes to mix genres and subjects.

The latest issue of First Things arrived Thursday, and I was strong – I saved it for the flight. Next, Janet Lewis’ first novel, The Invasion (1932), which I recently bought with birthday money and started reading on Thursday. Call it consumer testing: I like to be certain a book will occupy my attention. How frustrating to start one midair and find out it’s unreadable (hardly likely with Lewis – I’ve read all of her other novels and poetry). Not only could I not read it, I’d have to lug it around for the rest of the trip unless it was so bad I gave it to my seatmate, which I once did with a much-touted George V. Higgins novel.

I’m also packing the latest volume by the prolific Victor Davis Hanson, The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern (Bloomsbury Press, 2010). In the first essay, “Why Study War?” he writes: “Few classicists seemed to remember that most notable Greek writers, thinkers, and statesmen—from Aeschylus to Pericles to Xenophon—had served in the phalanx or on a trireme at sea and that such experiences permeated their work.”

The new books I carry are devoted to old themes and the old ones read like new. In the latter category is Boswell’s Life of Johnson in the zaftig little Everyman’s edition. I know it as though it were my biography, and that’s a comfort. Why risk reading a bestseller or some unreadable title that reflects an “established convention of literary culture in America?” Boswell reports Johnson’s table talk on April 29, 1778:

“`It has been maintained that this superfoetation, this teeming of the press in modern times, is prejudicial to good literature, because it obliges us to read so much of what is of inferiour value, in order to be in the fashion; so that better works are neglected for want of time, because a man will have more gratification of his vanity in conversation, from having read modern books, than from having read the best works of antiquity. But it must be considered, that we have now more knowledge generally diffused; all our ladies read now, which is a great extension. Modern writers are the moons of literature; they shine with reflected light, with light borrowed from the ancients. Greece appears to me to be the fountain of knowledge; Rome of elegance.’”

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