Sunday, September 30, 2012

`My List of Enjoyables'

The Fishes and Fisheries of the Gold Coast…Rearranging my books for the eighth or ninth time after a house-move, and finding yet once more that in spite of losing the inevitable batch of favourites I have more volumes than I can accommodate, I think: surely this is one to scrap. But I open it and read: `We are at present very ignorant of the biology of the Gold Coast fishes’ and then I remember watching the fishermen at Keta (which is the end of the world) hauling on a mile-long horseshoe of seine-net and decide that some day, though God or Nkrumah knows when, I may need this book for reference.”
The author of the ichthyologic treatise (1947) is Frederick Robert Irvine. Keta is a seaport in Ghana, known as the Gold Coast until, in 1956, it became the first British colony in Africa to become independent. Kwame Nkrumah (1909-1972) was the nation’s first prime minister and president. Louis MacNeice, author of the passage quoted above, visited Ghana in 1956 to produce a feature for the BBC. His necessarily digressive account of the books in his personal library, “Pleasure in Reading: Woods to Get Lost In,” was published in The Times in 1961 (and collected in Selected Literary Criticism of Louis MacNeice, Clarendon Press, 1987).
MacNeice distills a dilemma faced by every reader: to cull or not to cull. Books are not shoes or empty bottles. They trail memories, some precious. We form sentimental, friend-like attachments to some of them. Why else would I cling to two copies of The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, when one is an unsightly, broken-spined paperback and the other a sturdy hard cover? Because I read the soft cover first and cherish that forty-year-old experience. After listing other odds and ends he's unable to jettison from his shelves – Pareto’s four-volume The Mind and Society, Kipling’s stories in Greek, Julian Huxley’s Evolution: The Modern Synthesis – MacNeice writes:
“For it is pleasant to own books in the way a tit owns a coconut: it is there to peck at when you want it, otherwise the matter rests suspended. There is an advantage in books which are primarily informative: since they need not be judged aesthetically, the reading of them need not be tainted by any hint of the snob game.”
Here I dissent. Even strictly informative volumes – field guides and dictionaries are obvious examples – are open to aesthetic evaluation. What is aesthetics if not order, and what is information if not arranged in an orderly fashion? After fifty-one years, however, the “snob game” remains as vital as ever. MacNeice, a little confusedly, refers to “those works which, though not literature proper, have literary merit.” His example, which to my taste is inarguably “literature proper” (and sparks MacNeice’s own sort of “snob game”) is Henry Mayhew’s four-volume London Labour and London Poor, a work that exceeds anything Dickens wrote:
“This I have used as a case-book when digging for radio material, but far more often I have gone to it for its sheer entertainment value. This is perhaps some Schadenfreude involved in reading about all those orphans and mudlarks and pure-finders, but the appeal lies much more in the fact that Mayhew was a brilliant reporter  with a very fine ear for natural speech.”
MacNeice goes on to describe the “books which I most enjoy,” mostly poetry. They “force one to show one’s hand, declare one’s taste, get involved in argument.” As a poet, he says, “It is like having a taste for distilled liquors, natural in someone who is in the distillery business.” One thinks of book chat, book blogs and the sprawling literary industry, the habitat of poseurs for whom books are fashions to be “accessorized,” like earrings and bracelets.  (Paul Fussell writes in The Anti-Egotist: Kingsley Amis, Man of Letters: "There's no better test of one's own honesty, as well as the power of a given poem to survive, than to choose to read it when no one is looking.")

MacNeice bucks the fashions of his day and his generation. He loves Dickens. He likes Comus but not the rest of Milton; the Inferno but not the Purgatorio and Paradiso (“neither is rich enough in story”); the Odyssey but not the Iliad; Beckett over Osborne. MacNeice admits that “in both reading and writing I happen to prefer verse to prose,” and comes no closer to a systematic aesthetic than by referring, winningly, to “my list of enjoyables.”

1 comment:

George said...

"There's no better test of one's own honesty, as well as the power of a given poem to survive, than to choose to read it when no one is looking."

I have seen some hundreds or thousands of persons attend plays or operas; I have seen almost nobody, except instructors, read poems, so few in fact that I can remember one instance and one book. For the power of survival--taking this in the sense of Robert Graves's poem distinguishing "by heart" from "by rote"--this is well enough. For honesty, I have to say that I think that Fussell underestimates the cleverness of hypocrisy. Or, more likely, his rhetoric ran away with him.