Last week, Andrew Rickard at Graveyard Masonry posted an excerpt from “TranslatingLiterature into Life,” an essay in Arnold Bennett’s Things That Have Interested Me (1921), a hodge-podge Bennett called “my lark.” He published two more volumes in the series, in 1923 and 1926. The result is a mixed bag but I like the premise. Isn’t a writer likely to be at his best when writing about something that interests him? I once worked for an editor who kept a file of potential topics for his bi-weekly column. He titled the list “Things I Hate,” and it was quite lengthy. As you might expect, he was a tedious fellow.
As in his better novels – The Old Wives’ Tale (1908), Riceyman Steps (1923) -- Bennett’s manner is bluff, hearty and common-sensical. He takes pleasure in irking the sophisticates, and assumes a faux-curmudgeonly tone. In “Buying and Reading Books” (Things That Have Interested Me, third series), he makes me laugh -- “But you—I mean we—will sit down to a great book as though we were sitting down to a ham sandwich” – and prompts us to consider the reasons we read, and why we sometimes settle for mediocrity:
“If a book excites thought; if it stimulates the sense of beauty, the sense of pity, the sense of sympathy; if it helps in any way towards the understanding of one's fellow-creatures; if it moves to laughter or to tears; if it increases the general vitality; if it throws light on dark problems; if it discloses the broad principles which govern the movement of humanity; if it awakens the conscience and thus directly influences personal conduct,—if it accomplishes any of these things, then it has succeeded. If it does none of these things, but rather the opposite of these things, then it has failed.”
Bennett is interested in the psychology of reading, the reasons people choose one title over another, and pretend to have enjoyed books even when unable to finish them. The snobbery of reading is a fascinating subject, one that applies less to the hoi polloi than to the conspicuously educated. Consider those who claim to have enjoyed William Gaddis’ JR or William Gass’ The Tunnel. Both are unreadable and I have read them both. In “Finishing Books,” Bennett writes:
“All dull books are bad, and all tiresome books are either bad or maladroit or both. If we have `stuck’ in a book, or if we have simply forgotten to go on with it, we ought to have the courage of our personal experience, and never be enthusiastic about that book again. For us there is something vitally wrong about that book, whatever its reputation. So doing, we should perform a useful sanitary function in literature. Many dead books remain unburied and offend the air simply because we dishonestly pretend that they are alive and kicking.”
Bennett’s common-man persona sometimes tips over into lunk-headed vulgarity. Speaking of Henry James, Bennett says he has “seldom been able to enjoy his novels,” and adds: “Various great writers have been difficult. For instance, Doughty. But I want some reward for my trouble, and from James I too rarely got any reward.” In The Author’s Craft and Other Critical Writings of Arnold Bennett (ed. Samuel Hynes, 1968) is a 1904 essay, “My Literary Heresies,” in which he formulates, at age thirty-seven, his obstinate bookish credo:
“I have what Carlyle called `a strict taste in books.' I was born with it. . . . I am not to be gulled, hoodwinked, bullied, or even blinded by glitter. My opinions are mature, informed, and settled. If, when I talk about books, I do not know what I am talking about, then I ought to be ashamed of myself. In brief, I am like all true bookmen. Other people call it cheek, but other bookmen know that it isn’t.”