Anecdotal Evidence started as a benignly metastasized commonplace book. I’ve always collected the good parts of what I’m reading, not so much for the information they contain as for the memorable way such information is phrased. By “information” I mean not just vital stats – birth and death dates, the capital of Burkina Faso – but artful wording and moral insight. Sometimes this meant heavily marked, annotated and indexed books. My Ulysses is swollen and can no longer close, with pages of notes taped into the text, and more text than not is underlined in my Rasselas and Daniel Deronda. And then it meant notebooks, physical and digital. My first impulse with the blog was to share the nuggets I had panned from the river, but that wasn’t sufficient for my purposes. I found I wanted to assay the ore, forge alloys and share the wealth.
Simon Leys, né Pierre Ryckmans (1935-2014), begins the foreword to his commonplace book, Other People’s Thoughts (Black Inc., 2007), with a wisecrack typical of Oscar Wilde: “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation . . . One realises one’s soul only by getting rid of culture.” You’ll find that in De Profundis (1897). I’m reminded of Lamb – “Books think for me” – but here is Leys’ gloss on Wilde’s rather snotty aperçu: “And, indeed, many commonplace books remind me of a dull gentleman I knew: he collected jokes in a little notebook and, before attending social functions, he used to rehearse half-a-dozen of these in order to impress his acquaintances with his wit.”
I’ve only just discovered Other People’s Thoughts, as it was published in Australia, where the Belgian-born Leys lived for more than forty years. I’ve discovered his work only incrementally. I knew him first as a sinologist, an early Western truth teller when it came to the crimes of Mao and the communists. But Leys was more –a reviewer, novelist, translator, “the greatest contemporary essayist I know,” and that supposedly extinct species, a man-of-letters. This became apparent to American readers in 2013, when New York Review Books published The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays. Many of the writers excerpted in Other People’s Thoughts – Waugh, Weil, Chesterton, Balzac, Orwell, Li Bai, Cioran, Conrad -- will be familiar from the earlier volume. Others are new in Leys but shouldn’t surprise us, including Bernanos, Lichtenberg, Glenn Gould and Unamuno. One source is new to me (which is one of the rewards for reading such a book), Jean-Baptiste Henri-Dominique Lacordaire (1802-1861), the French priest who reestablished the Dominican Order after it was neutralized following the French Revolution. Leys quotes a passage from Lacordaire that neither of us has obeyed:
“If you know how to read, you do not need many books […] Learn to meditate on a few lines, even from a mediocre author; nothing bears fruit unless it is rooted in meditation.”
Wise words I’ve ignored most of my life. When it comes to books, I’m a gourmand with gourmet aspirations. Also on the subject of reading, Leys quotes a passage of unadulterated bullshit from Emerson: “It makes no difference what I read. If it is irrelevant, I read it deeper. I read it until it is pertinent to me, and mine. There is creative reading as well as writing.” Not included by Leys is this antidote to Emerson from Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature (1980): “A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” I’m pleased Leys includes a passage from Waugh’s Robbery Under Law that I wrote about in 2007. Now I’m sounding like Leys on the subject of a commonplace book: “It can draw its inner unity only from the compiler himself, whose mind and character it should somehow mirror.”