Saturday, November 14, 2015

`More Companionable Than Any Best Seller'

“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.”

A reader tells me he is interested in eighteenth-century England. From the sound of it, he knows more about the history of that time and place than I do -- Marlborough, the South Sea Bubble and the rest. What little I know is filtered second-hand through literature, which brings us to his request. He asks me to recommend an eighteenth-century English novel he might find interesting. “I’ve read a lot of contemporary stuff,” he writes, “and in school I read some of the Russians but I don’t know the literature of that time.”

Recommending books is risky but potentially gratifying. To love a writer is to want to share his work. But when we don’t know a reader well, especially when intimacy is strictly digital, one is wary of “signs of panic,” in the words of George Gordon in his preface to More Companionable Books (Chatto & Windus, 1947). Gordon (1881-1942) was a literary scholar at Oxford. This slender volume is a posthumous enlargement of his Companionable Books (1928), which began as a series of radio broadcasts. One would never guess from Gordon’s literary tastes that he was writing during the ascendancy of High Modernism, the decade of Joyce, Eliot and Pound. He devotes a chapter to each of his enthusiasms, with the latest dating from 1883 – Trollope’s Autobiography. The earliest is Don Quixote (1605, 1615), followed by The Compleat Angler (1653).

I reviewed the eighteenth-century choices for my reader – Defoe, Swift, Richardson, Fielding, Johnson, Goldsmith, Smollett, Sterne – which read in aggregate like the richest period in the novel’s history in English. All but Richardson, for obvious reasons, were attractive choices, though one can quibble about the status of Gulliver’s Travels and Rasselas as novels. Gordon came to the rescue, at least in part. His “companionable books” are, he says, “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 it through mere timidity and misunderstanding.”

Gordon includes a book by only one of the novelists among the names I assembled for my reader – Tristram Shandy, a title on my desert-island list, though its eccentricity is off-putting to many. Dr. Johnson famously dismissed it with “Nothing odd will do for long. Tristram Shandy did not last,” and Gordon says “though it has something for everybody, it is not, and never can be, everybody’s book.” I hope I’m not insulting my reader but I hoped to balance length and accessibility with pleasure and literary worth, and thus removed Tristram Shandy from contention. I did the same with Tom Jones. Much as I love it, Fielding’s novel is lengthy, not always an inducement for twenty-first-century readers, especially those unacquainted with eighteenth-century storytelling, so I compromised and nominated a split-ticket: Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768) and Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742). Both are economical and amusing, and each offers a small taste of their authors’ greater, longer novels. My reader promises to read both volumes (in combined bulk, still amounting to less text than Tristram Shandy or Tom Jones) and write a book report. 

As a digressive coda, I'll add that the copy of More Companionable Books I’ve been reading is from the Fondren Library at Rice University, where I work. On the inside front cover is a book plate I have seen many times before: “From the Library of Edgar Odell Lovett, First President of the Rice Institute.” Lovett was teaching mathematics at Princeton when he was nominated by that university’s president, Woodrow Wilson, to head the new school in Houston. He served as president of Rice from 1908 until 1946. Hundreds of books in the Fondren collection – essays, poetry, fiction, criticism, many volumes bearing stamps from London and New York City book dealers – are part of Lovett’s bequest to the library. A bronze statue of Lovett was dedicated during the Rice centenary in 2012. Over his left shoulder, held in place with a strap, he carries a stack of books. I pass the statue every day on my way to the library.

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