Tuesday, March 21, 2017

`Young People Should Be Careful in Their Reading'

“The most common form of diversion is reading. In that vast and varied field millions find their mental comfort. Nothing makes a man more reverent than a library.”

Ah, the good old days, when we sat around perusing Proust and amusing our fellows with choice couplets from The Dunciad. Pardon the cynicism. The author quoted above is Winston Churchill (Nobel Prize for Literature, 1953), and I endorse the spirit of his observation if not the historical specifics. Thanks to Terry Teachout I discovered the source of this passage, Painting as a Pastime (1950), originally published as an essay in Amid These Storms (1932; the English edition is blandly titled Thoughts and Adventures). In a 2009 column for the Wall Street Journal, Terry called the slender volume “one of his wittiest and most insightful pieces of writing.” In it, Churchill stresses the importance of a “public man” cultivating “a hobby and new forms of interest.” The object is “the avoidance of worry and mental overstrain.” For Churchill this primarily meant painting, a pursuit he began at age forty. In the book he devotes a three-page digression to the virtues of reading:

“`What shall I do with all my books?’ was the question; and the answer, `Read them,’ sobered the questioner. But if you cannot read them, at any rate handle them and, as it were, fondle them. Peer into them. Let them fall open where they will. Read on from the first sentence that arrests the eye. Then turn to another.”

That was more my style when young. There was a romance about books, a sentimental liking for their look and smell – and surely for the impression book-“fondling” left on the opposite sex: “He’s so sensitive.” Churchill warns us against “read[ing] too many good books when quite young”:

“It is a great pity to read a book too soon in life. The first impression is the one that counts; and if it is a slight one, it may be all that can be hoped for. A later and second perusal may recoil from a surface already hardened by premature contact. Young people should be careful in their reading, as old people in eating their food.”

Advice I never followed. The food analogy is apt: I was an omnivore. How else does one learn to winnow out lousy books. A better metaphor: inoculation. One must ingest a few bad books in order to develop immunity. Churchill gives another caution:

“But reading and book-love in all their forms suffer from one serious defect: they are too nearly akin to the ordinary daily round of the brain-worker to give that element of change and contrast essential to real relief. To restore psychic equilibrium we should call into use those parts of the mind which direct both eye and hand. Many men have found great advantage in practicing a handicraft for pleasure. Joinery, chemistry, book-binding, even brick-laying—if one were interested in them and skilful at them—would give a real relief to the over-tired brain.”

No brick-laying for this reader. Churchill gets perilously close to the crackpot idea of reading (or any hobby) as therapy. Reading is an end in itself, pure pleasure, solace, communion. 

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