Says Arnold Bennett of Mrs. Arb in Riceyman Steps (1923):
“To her, reading was a refuge from either idleness or life. She was never idle, and she loved life. Thus she condescended toward books.”
How positively twenty-first-century of Violet Arb, whose husband-to-be, Henry Earlforward, is the penny-pinching owner of a second-hand bookshop in Clerkenwell. With a single entrance, the shop is more cave or dungeon than retail outlet. A visitor who peers into its “gloomy backward” reports: “The effect was of mysterious and vast populations of books imprisoned forever in everlasting shade, chained, deprived of air and sun and movement, hopeless, resigned, martyrized.” Earlforward, a miser whose passion is money and gold not books (or his wife), is ideally unsuited for Mrs. Arb, for whom books, like drowsy flies on a summer afternoon, are but a middling nuisance. Earlforward possesses a modest quotient of animal cunning. A customer seeks “a Shakspere” (“I’ve been thinking for a long time I ought to have a Shakspere”), and the shop owner asks: “`Illustrated?’ asked the bookseller, who had now accurately summed up his client as one who might know something of the world, but who was a simpleton in regard to books.”
Bennett’s satire is gentle and more amusing than scarifying. We sympathize more with Violet than Henry, despite her condescension to the thousands of dusty volumes in her husband’s shop, none of which she has read. After all, “she loved life.” Here, the bookman is the true philistine, not the bustling, life-loving wife. The late Simon Leys borrows the title of “I Prefer Reading” (The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays, 2013) from an aphorism by Logan Pearsall Smith collected in Afterthoughts (1931): “People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.” Leys doesn’t comment directly on Smith’s bon mot but clearly finds it amusing. He quotes the line again in “Reading,” the second of his ABC Boyer Lectures. In the same lecture he also cites an observation made by Borges in an interview that serves as the epigraph to the essay in The Hall of Uselessness, “A Way of Life”:
“Jorge Luis Borges (whose real importance as a writer is perhaps still debatable, whereas his supreme excellence as a reader is definitively established) was once asked by an interviewer if he did not regret having spent more time reading than actually living. He replied: `There are many ways of living, and reading is one of them . . . When you are reading, you are living, and when you are dreaming, you are living also.’”
Borges refutes the notion that books represent an escape from the more important business of getting on with life, anti-matter to life’s matter. We might call this the Mrs. Arb Fallacy. In another essay, “The Imitation of Our Lord Don Quixote,” Leys offers an even more forceful refutation: “. . . especially among educated people, one often encounters a strange misconception that there are a certain number of books one should have read, and it would be shameful to acknowledge that one has failed in this sort of cultural obligation. Personally, I disagree with such an attitude; I confess I read only for pleasure.” As though to illustrate his point, when asked during a 2011 interview what he is reading, Leys replies:
“Leszek Kolekowski, My Correct Views of Everything; F.W. Mote, China and the Vocation of History in the Twentieth Century—A Personal Memoir; and for bedside reading, I keep constantly dipping into two huge collections of sardonic aphorisms (gloriously incorrect!) by two eccentric and lonely geniuses: Cioran’s posthumous notebooks (Cahiers) and Nicolás Gómez Dávila's Escolios a un texto implícito.”
To love books may even be to love life, or at least not to run away from it.