Thursday, November 15, 2012

`They Are My Refuge From a World'

“For how many of us—avid readers, that is—has the printed page been a means of avoidance of the sheer messiness, the intractability, of life, to no other purpose than the avoidance itself?”

Well, yes – and no. For some of us, sometimes. At age twelve, plowing through the overheated oeuvre of Edgar Rice Burroughs, I was avoiding a lot of things, including growing up, and were I reading Burroughs with comparable avidity today, almost half a century later, I would probably have succeeded in avoiding most of adult life. The demands of maturity, biological and otherwise, have seen to it that I put aside childish things. When a nominal adult gushes over sci-fi, I squirm a little.

Like Anthony Daniels (aka Theodore Dalrymple) in “The digital challenge, I: Loss & gain, or the fate of the book,” I’m addicted to printed matter and recognize the symptoms of withdrawal: “…we grow agitated and begin to pine, by which time anything will do: a bus timetable, a telephone directory, an operating manual for a washing machine.” Like the drunk who resorts to chugging Aqua Velva, I found myself recently reading the list of ingredients on a bottle of Worcestershire sauce. Is this a strategy for avoiding unpleasantness? Daniels writes:

“We gorge on the printed page to distract ourselves from ourselves: the great business of Doctor Johnson’s life, according to Boswell and Johnson himself.”

Johnson rightly advises Boswell that “it is better if a man reads from immediate inclination,” which would seem to include diversionary and time-killing reading. But I would argue that serious reading, which sometimes begins in a spirit of escapism, represents not a proxy but a true engagement with life. Whether Tolstoy, Babel or Beckett, the lasting writers are truth tellers and offer messiness and intractability galore, including the messiness and intractability of truth. As Johnson reminds us, “the only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.” Normally, I would never read something titled “The Digital Challenge” or “The Fate of the Book.” Too portentous and self-important sounding, like anything with “manifesto” or “theory” in its title. But Daniels, characteristically, writes from experience. When he looks at the books on his “laden shelves,” he says: “They are my refuge from a world that I have found difficult to negotiate.” He has written an elegy for a gift that has not quite left us:

“Whether the book survives or not, I am firmly of the opinion that it ought to survive, and nothing will convince me otherwise. The heart has its beliefs that evidence knows not of.”

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