Thursday, February 09, 2012

`I Read Slowly, Richly, Not to Say Juicily'

Here’s a lament heard ad nauseum among readers, or at least among people who enjoy being perceived as readers: “So many books, so little time.” It’s an anxiety – or pose – I’ll never share. One makes time for what is important. As we season as readers, we grow ruthlessly jealous of our time. We resent bad books as time-wasters and don’t waste even more time worrying about the opinions of those who tell us what we ought to read. We’re left with three options: We can read a new book, or a previously unread old book, or we can reread a book that has already proven itself reliable. The third choice has been definitively stated (with tongue somewhat in cheek) by Hazlitt in “On Reading Old Books”--

“I hate to read new books. There are twenty or thirty volumes that I have read over and over again, and these are the only ones that I have any desire ever to read at all”

–and by Nabokov in “Good Readers and Good Writers” (Lectures on Literature):

“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.”

There’s nothing musty or reactionary about such readers. A new book is a crapshoot, especially in our literary age. As dedicated readers of middle age or older, we’ve surely read most of the best that has already been written, and made up our minds about it. Reading is not a scavenger hunt, with a list of items to be collected like trophies. There’s no quota system. Reading good books is simply one of several ways we complete ourselves and become who we are. It’s selfish and civilized. George Lyttleton puts it like this in a May 2, 1957, letter to Rupert Hart-Davis (The Lyttelton/Hart-Davis Letters, Vol. 2):

“I love re-reading. Each night from 10.30 to 12 I read Gibbon out loud. I read slowly, richly, not to say juicily; and like Prospero’s isle the room is full of noises—little, dry, gentle noises. Some matter-of-fact man of blunt or gross perceptions might say it was the ashes cooling in the grate, but I know better. It is the little creatures of the night, moths and crickets and spiderlings, a mouse or two perhaps and small gnats in a wailful choir, come out to listen to the Gibbonian music—`Twenty-two acknowledged concubines and a library of 62,000 volumes attested the variety of his inclinations’—what sentient being, however humble, could resist that?”

I once read Whitman aloud in the bathtub, until my neighbor upstairs pounded on the floor. Lyttleton is describing the charm of bedtime rereading, the cozy autonomy of one book, one lamp, one reader. In his answering letter, Hart-Davis asked who Gibbon was writing about. On May 9, Lyttleton replied:

“That Gibbon sentence describes the emperor Gordian whose `manners were less pure, but his character was equally amiable with that of his father.’ Then comes the sentence I quoted, which ends: `and from the productions which he left behind him, it appears that the former [“concubines”] as well as the latter [“62,000 volumes”] were designed for use rather than for ostentation.’”

On May 12, Hart-Davis replied:

“I daresay that Gibbon’s broad blade carved out his meaning with more force and exactitude than did the bending rapiers of latter-day swordsmen.”

I’m repeatedly impressed by the ready wit and learning of both correspondents, but especially Lyttleton (age seventy-four in 1957). Many weeks they exchanged two letters each. Lyttleton often makes my favorite sort of literary allusion, one that is unannounced, that pleases and flatters attentive readers and goes harmlessly unrecognized by others. Here it is the Keatsian “wailful choir.” In four sentences Lyttleton alludes to Gibbon, Shakespeare and Keats – and whatever else I’m missing -- without breaking a sweat and without showing off. 


Don said...

Is there a distinction between reading something new and something new ? I'm reading Tristram Shandy for the first time; having been in print for 200+ years, it is hardly a "crapshoot," but it is entirely new to me. And, so far, delightful. Newly published material is definitely a crapshoot, but you can win occasionally, but I'm less willing to risk the loss (of time) as I get older.

Julia said...

"Reading is not a scavenger hunt, with a list of items to be collected like trophies. There’s no quota system. Reading good books is simply one of several ways we complete ourselves and become who we are. It’s selfish and civilized." Exactly what I needed to hear today. I am so greedy to read more, more, more, and forget that what I am reading RIGHT NOW is often pure delight. Thanks.