Wednesday, December 05, 2012

`Worth Being Taken Seriously by Serious Readers'

In The Valley of Bones, the seventh novel in Anthony Powell’s twelve-novel A Dance to the Music of Time, Nick Jenkins is a second lieutenant stationed in Wales in 1940. Among his fellow officers is the absurdly named Capt. Rowland Gwatkin, a banker in civilian life, who suffers from an unrequited passion for a barmaid. In an effort to comfort him, Jenkins paraphrases Alfred de Vigny:  

“`A French writer who'd been a regular officer said the whole point of soldiering was its bloody boring side.  The glamour, such as it was, was just a bit of exceptional luck if it came your way.’ 

“`Did he?’ said Gwatkin. 

“He spoke without a vestige of interest. I was impressed for the ten thousandth time by the fact that literature illuminates life only for those to whom books are a necessity.  Books are unconvertible assets, to be passed on only to those who possess them already.’” 

Serious readers will sympathize with Jenkins’ plight, remembering the hot-faced shame we've felt after revealing our true selves by sharing a bookish nugget with a civilian (that is, a non-reader). We love books, as some love war and barmaids, and we want to share what we love, though it may go unrequited. Our motives, after all, must be pure and we must be strong. Pedantry, pretentiousness and proselytizing are perennial temptations, but the impulse to share our pleasure can’t be denied. Remember Herr Doktor Kien’s delight when he meets the little boy interested in Sinology books in the first chapter of Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé? A devotion to books is rooted in pleasure. 

In a new essay on second-hand bookshops, Theodore Dalrymple reminds us that “serendipity is the greatest pleasure of browsing,” a lesson reinforced with every visit to the library and even our shelves at home. A recent mini-drama in my home library: Where did I put Robert Warshow’s The Immediate Experience? Agee, Balliett, Bangs, Farber, Giddins, Marcus. Where is it? Giddins. I forgot I had A Face in the Crowd. That’s where he collected the Jack Benny essay, “This Guy Wouldn't Give You the Parsley off His Fish.” I remember when it was published in Grand Street, back around ’86. I took it with me to the late, lamented Third Street Cinema in Rensselaer, N.Y., when I saw Utu, to read before the movie started. Back to Warshow. There he is, misshelved in literary criticism, between Ricks and Trilling. What fool did that? Dalrymple writes: 

“The joy of finding something that one did not know existed, and that is deeply interesting or connected in a totally unexpected way with one’s intellectual interests of the moment, is one of the great serendipitous rewards of browsing, and one unknown to those who take a purely instrumental view of bookshops, leaving them the moment they discover that they do not have the very book that they want.” 

I’m reading On Rereading (2011) for the first time. Patricia Meyer Spacks takes a look at what constitutes about three-quarters of my reading. In her first chapter, “Always a Stranger?” she writes: 

“It is noteworthy that Dr. Johnson, moral arbiter as well as literary critic, assesses each of his subjects in his mammoth work Lives of the Poets partly on the basis of the degree of pleasure the poet’s work evokes. Pleasure, in the many varieties that reading can produce, is worth being taken seriously by serious readers.”

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