To please the Unknown God. Time throws away
Dead thousands of them, but the God that knows
No death denies not one: the books all count.”
This amounts to an article of faith for some readers and writers. Even lousy books count, as examples of what to avoid. Look back on the hours we’ve squandered on badly written books. We may be indiscriminate omnivores when young, but one’s palate is there to be exercised and trained. No one is born with discriminating taste and some go on reading science fiction for the rest of their lives. My youngest son, almost twelve, started reading Catch-22 this week. It’s a childish novel (Nabokov called it “anti-American” and Evelyn Waugh had stronger words), but one he should get out of his system early. A reader on Thursday sent me a link to W.H. Auden’s syllabus for a class he taught at the University of Michigan in 1941-42, and asked, “Can you imagine the reaction of students today to a reading list like that?” Who wouldn’t want to read such books, at least once? I’ll never read The Brothers Karamazov again, but I’m glad to have read it when I was younger and had a stomach for such things. I still have never read an opera libretto, even one of Auden’s.
The passage quoted at the top is from E.A. Robinson’s “Captain Craig” (1902). In his biography of the poet, Scott Donaldson reports Robinson’s parents were enthusiastic readers, with the requisite Shakespeare, Dickens and Thackeray on the shelf. He quotes a letter Robinson wrote in 1929: “When I was young, I read mostly Dickens, Dime Novels (which cost five cents), Elijah Kellogg, Harry Castlemon, Oliver Optic, Horatio Alger, Bulwer-Lytton, Thackeray and Bryant’s Library of Poetry and Song.” Conventional fare for a boy born in the United States in 1869. As an adult he favored the novels of Dickens and Hardy, and the poetry of Arnold, Kipling and Housman. Of George Crabbe he writes: “Give him the darkest inch your shelf allows.” The editor of Uncollected Poems and Prose of Edwin Arlington Robinson (Colby College Press, 1975), Richard Cary, includes a section he calls “Briefs,” selected from the poet’s letters and other prose. Here is Robinson in 1927 as quoted by a reporter for the New York World:
“When I was younger I used to read all the time. I have come to the age when novels look wrong. Unless it’s a detective story it’s pretty hard for me to read a book 300 or 400 pages long….When I want to read poetry I usually read a play of Shakespeare over again….The dramatic element in poetry always appealed to me. As far back as I can remember the speeches and scenes in Shakespeare always gave me the biggest thrill.”
Cary also quotes an excerpt from “Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Musical Memoir,” published by Mabel Daniels in 1963: “If I could have only one book, do you know what I’d choose? . . . The dictionary! You’ve no idea how interesting it is to read just as one reads a book. It would last for years.”