Saturday, October 27, 2012

`There Is a Companionable Quality in Some Books'

“There are a great many people who shrink from opening an old book because it is old. There are almost as many who, if you present them with a book, and tell them it is a literary masterpiece, at once show signs of panic, and are evidently afraid to be left alone with it. If it is old, they think it is probably dull; and if it is a masterpiece, they are sure it will be over their heads.” 

The shrinking and panicking have only accelerated since 1927 when George Stuart Gordon (1881–1942) wrote those sentences in his preface to Companionable Books, a collection of BBC radio talks about his favorite books, broadcast in 1926. Gordon was a wounded veteran of the Great War, a literary scholar and president of Magdalen College at Oxford. Like Ectopistes migratorius, he represents a species the world will never see again. Chatto & Windus posthumously published More Companionable Books in 1947, bringing together the original seven pieces and adding five more. Gordon’s taste is superb. Among his selections are Pepys’ diary, The Compleat Angler, Tristram Shandy, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the letters of Cowper and Lamb, The Pilgrim’s Progress, William Kinglake’s Eothen (with Fermor’s and Waugh’s, my favorite travel book) and Trollope’s Autobiography. Each book, Gordon writes in the preface, is 

“…much more alive and a great deal more companionable than any best seller one might care to name. What most men and women are looking for all their lives is companionship, and so far as books provide it, here it was. There is a companionable quality in some books that skips the centuries, and I was reluctant that anyone should miss out through mere timidity and misunderstanding.” 

Gordon’s essays are conversational and enthusiastic, never donnish. He understands that for dedicated common readers, books are old friends, as cherished and relied upon as their human counterparts. Gordon is a gifted storyteller, modest enough to relate the stories of others and give them full credit, an impresario of anecdote. In “The Humour of Charles Lamb” he writes: 

“One of the terrors of his life was being left alone with a sensible well-informed man who did not know him. He was of that select minority (the salt of the earth) who if the sun rose in the West would observe nothing unusual. If a subject did not interest him, he left it alone, and in everything that related to science was `a whole Encyclopedia behind the rest of the world.’” 

Of the Life of Johnson, Gordon writes: 

“Though it suits all ages, it is a book, I fancy, best appreciated in the middle years [Gordon has already told us he first read it as a schoolboy, and that it left an “almost magical impression” on him], and by those who have had to fight for their experience, who have not found life easy, and who are still in the battle. Intelligence is not enough, even superior intelligence, as Macaulay proved. No admirer of this book has more disastrously misunderstood it. To understand Johnson it is necessary to have lived and to have thought about life, for life was his trade.” 

And, in the talk on Lamb’s letters, Gordon reveals his rare appreciation of the mutually dependent kinship of life and literature: 

“Lamb was singular among his literary friends for his frank acceptance of life, and his devotion to duty. A clerk he began, and a clerk he remained, because he and Mary must live.” 

Lasting friendship is rare. It requires constant maintenance and is never a passive accomplishment. Not so with books. Despite our neglect and ingratitude, they remain constant, happy whenever we return. 

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