Yesterday’s genial chattiness sounds today like the seasoned judgment of a peculiarly well-read man: “Boswell is essentially a book for the pocket, to be opened at random while waiting for a train or a doctor or a dentist; busy men of affairs like Lord Rosebery have recognised it as the finest `night-cap’ in the world. It is the fallacy of thinking that `skipping’ is the sign of a shallow mind that has led to the avoidance of what is really the most absorbing study in the world.” One would look forward to meeting such a fellow, for whom a book is a reliable companion not an odious burden. And one would like to see a pocket large enough to hold the Life of Johnson.
The author, S.P.B.Mais (1885-1975), is one of those literary phantoms who write and publish prolifically and are known by name to a broad reading public, only to evaporate, sometimes before their earthly deaths. Mais published some two-hundred books and for years was a BBC broadcaster. The volume I have read is Why We Should Read (1921), a collection of brief essays, few longer than four or five pages and all published in such long-vanished journals as John o’ London’s Weekly. What impresses a twenty-first-century reader are the casual literary assumptions made by Mais that would stump today’s English majors:
“I suppose there is still somebody living who has not read Tom Jones: it seems inconceivable that it should be so, but queer things of this sort do happen.”
“We all know what Swinburne thought about [Walter Savage Landor]: the trouble has been that so few people have taken any pains to go further and rediscover this great, imaginative artist for themselves.”
“The majority of men and women are very much like myself, I imagine. They read with equal interest a modern novel, say, of Sheila Kaye-Smith, an exposition of the Relativity Theory like Eddington’s Space, Time and Gravitation, E.V. Lucas’s essays, Henri Fabre and Trotter, and at the same time keep harking back to reread Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, Shelley and other favorites among the classics.”
This is the opposite of “elitist,” the kneejerk epithet it would elicit today. In fact, in spirit it is democratic and refreshingly free of snobbery. Mais assumes his readers are as broadly well read as he is, and share his enthusiasm for a variety of books. We all know readers and critics who inhabit self-constructed provincial enclaves, whether dedicated to William H. Gass or science fiction.
Mais’ cosmopolitan appetites are evident in Part IV of Why We Should Read. Titled “Certain Foreigners,” the section consists of an essay about Montaigne (“this most lovable man”) and nine devoted to Russian writers, many of whom by 1921 had been translated into English by Constance Garnett. Mais extolls Nekrasov, Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Turgenev, Goncharov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov. Of Dead Souls he says: “it makes boys laugh, young men think and old men weep.” Of the often misunderstood Oblomov: “he had a heart of gold, a chaste mind and clear soul: it was just that his will was sapped.” He has the chutzpah to say of Tolstoy (unfairly): “There are in [his] books no heroes, no characters, no personalities, and hence there is no tragedy, no catastrophe, no redeeming horror, no redeeming laughter.” Chekhov’s great “In the Ravine” he calls “a picture of a girl not very different in her calculated brutality and heartlessness from Regan and Goneril.”
Mais formulates his critical credo in his introduction: “The object of any man who enjoys life is to share his enjoyment with others. If a book appeals to me I want as many people as possible to derive the pleasure that I derived from it.”