“The rest of my education was acquired haphazard in a public library. It was a very good library, run by an Englishman who took his work seriously; yet, in spite of that, and in spite of the fact that I became a public librarian myself, public libraries seem to me terrible places with a degrading air of institutionalism and of pseudo-professionalism.”
I’ve known people too uppity to use a public library. Patronizing one would imply they couldn't afford to buy their own books, and there’s something so common about reading volumes already manhandled by others. But I’ve never been squeamish. If libraries issued degrees like universities, my name would trail a dozen sets of initials. That’s where my true education took place, “haphazard” or otherwise, certainly not in classrooms or lecture halls. The writer cited above is Frank O’Connor (1903-1966), born Michael O’Donovan in Cork, Ireland, whose stories I first read in a volume borrowed from the central library on Superior Avenue in Cleveland. The passage is drawn from a slender book, hardly more than a pamphlet, Towards an Appreciation of Literature, published in 1945 by the Metropolitan Publishing Co., 32 Bachelor’s Walk, Dublin.
O’Connor was born into real poverty. He represents a human type I admire – the self-driven, self-educated man or woman, often without a university education, who reads, studies and learns for the love of it, as naturally as some people pick up golf or a second language (examples: Dr. Johnson, Abraham Lincoln, Louis Armstrong). In our age, when everyone goes to college, few are educated. O’Connor describes “your true auto-didact” as “a tough Alpine plant, and though not very beautiful in himself, [he] is guaranteed to grow almost anywhere with the minimum of attention.” Of course, O’Connor is projecting his own life story, and he goes on to describe teaching himself to read German and, in the meantime, reading all of Goethe in English. Of course, in his “simple optimism,” and without guidance, an autodidact risks missing the contexts and the nuances of what he reads. O’Connor says “I had left school before we got so far as long division, and I was twenty before I found out what the simplest grammatical terms meant.” His explanation for that Irish boy’s infatuation with literature is true to my experience:
“I came to literature as I fancy a great many people come to it, because they need companionship, and a wider and more civilized form of life than they can find in the world about them, all the more since that world is being more and more steadily drained of whatever beauty it had; but the city of literature is just as big and complicated as any other capital, and a man can be just as lonely there. It has its sharks and bores, its snobbish quarters and stews, and a great many quiet suburbs where all sorts of obscure and attractive people live.”
When he gets to the particulars, O’Connor recounts the writers who formed him, including Austen, Turgenev, Trollope and Chekhov. “For me, and I think for most of my generation,” he writes, “the experience of literature came through the study of the 19th-century novel, and our views of literature are largely coloured and limited by that particular approach.” Serious readers would agree with him that “the 19th-century novel still seems to me incomparably the greatest of the modern arts, the art in which the modern world has expressed itself most completely.”
Like any work by an intelligent autodidact, O’Connor’s little survey is pleasingly wayward and argumentative. He ranks Boswell higher than Johnson (a not indefensible argument, though I can’t agree). He rightly lauds Shakespeare, Swift and Saint-Simon. He mentions few Americans, and Melville and Henry James not at all. O’Connor says of literature, in his final paragraph, that it is “communication, and while it lifts the burden of solitude and puts us in contact with other minds, it puts us in contact with their doubts and fears as well as their pleasures and hopes.”
Last Tuesday, May 10, was the fiftieth anniversary of O’Connor’s death.