“We had a large bookcase full of books which I had myself selected from the library at Sudbourne. I had felt it obligatory to bring a number of novels, as they were then almost the only books read by ordinary people, and I did my best to read some of them.”
Little has changed in a century. Most people I know who read, read novels, usually new ones. Why this is so, I’m not certain. Presumably, a novel ought to be entertaining, as sufficiently diverting as a movie for inducing self-forgetting, and that’s a respectable reason for reading a book (it beats snobbery). Our Victorian forebears, consumers of vast three-deckers, certainly expected a measure of narrative oomph along with edification. The passage above, by art critic and historian Sir Kenneth Clark (1903-1983), is from the first volume of his memoirs, Another Part of the Wood (1974), the chapter titled “The Making of an Aesthete.” Clark has already told us he hated Dickens and Thackeray. He continues, recalling his time as a schoolboy:
“I remember being genuinely moved by The Return of the Native, pleased with myself for having enjoyed The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, bored by The Egoist and haunted (as I am to this day) by Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But even at that age I was no novel reader. I suppose that most young people read novels as a short cut to growing up. By living other people’s lives they achieve vicarious experience. I did not want experience of life. I wanted information.”
The two expectations are not mutually exclusive. When young I read out of a hunger that only books could satisfy. Movies and music met other needs which I never confused them with literary peckishness. From the best novels – those by, say, George Eliot and Joseph Conrad – I could reliably draw experience and information. In fact, the two aren’t all that different. Recently I reread Henry Green’s Caught (1943), a novel about the firefighting service in London during the Blitz. It never occurred to me to read a nonfiction volume devoted to those events, but Green lends his novel a documentary feel while not forgetting to tell a good story. It renewed my interest in the Blitz (and Churchill) and my respect for Green. Clark goes on to make a confession:
“So what I valued most in the bookcase was the eleventh edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. It is indeed a masterly piece of editing . . . One leaps from one subject to another, fascinated as much by the play of mind and the idiosyncrasies of their authors as by the facts and dates. It must be the last encyclopaedia in the tradition of Diderot which assumes that information can be made memorable only when it is slightly coloured by prejudice. When T. S. Eliot wrote `Soul curled up on the window seat reading the Encyclopædia Britannica,’ he was certainly thinking of the eleventh edition.’”
I’ve often heard the eleventh edition rhapsodized, and perhaps I used it as a boy, but I share Clark’s general enthusiasm for solid reference books, including dictionaries, atlases, almanacs and field guides. Rigorous organization and precise prose are always attractive, whether in novels or encyclopedias. I remember reading my father’s crossword puzzle dictionary as a sort of thesaurus, and the OED is a veritable internet, minus the whining and porn.