“. . . three pence in my pocket. With this for my whole fortune, I was trudging through Richmond, in my blue smock-frock and my red garters tied under my knees, when, staring about me, my eye fell upon a little book, in a bookseller’s window, on the outside of which was written: ‘TALE OF A TUB; PRICE 3d.’”
Stories of lives changed by books are always pleasing. In this case, the reader and writer is William Cobbett (1763-1835), the farmer and malcontent best known for Rural Rides (1830). He was a master of prose in the plain style, a link in the eccentric English chain stretching from Swift, Defoe and Johnson to Hazlitt, Orwell (in his best essays, not the fiction) and Theodore Dalrymple. As Hazlitt wrote in his essay on Cobbett: “A really great and original writer is like nobody but himself.”
“The title was so odd, that my curiosity was excited. I had the 3d. but, then, I could have no supper. In I went, and got the little book, which I was so impatient to read, that I got over into a field, at the upper corner of Kew gardens, where there stood a hay-stack. On the shady side of this, I sat down to read.”
The anecdote is taken from one of Cobbett’s polemics, “To the Reformers,” published on Feb. 5, 1820 in the Political Register. The anecdote is idyllic, and even if embellished or invented, worth believing. Throughout his work, Cobbett returns to Swift like Antaeus making certain to touch the Earth.
“The book was so different from anything I had ever read before: it was something so new to my mind, that, though I could not at all understand some of it, it delighted me beyond description; and it produced what I have always considered a sort of birth of intellect. I read on till it was dark, without any thought of supper or bed. When I could see no longer, I tumbled down by the side of the stack, where I slept till the birds in Kew Gardens awaked me in the morning; when off I started to Kew, reading my little book.”
I thought of the first time I read Ulysses as a teenager. Pages passed in a stupor. I understood nothing. Then words would flash and I would keep reading. That’s how we learn to read, not merely recognize signs on a page. Cobbett describes an event that occurred when he was thirteen. He gets a job as groundskeeper at Kew:
“The gardener, seeing me fond of books, lent me some gardening books to read; but, these I could not relish after my Tale of a Tub, which I carried about with me wherever I went, and when I, at about twenty years old, lost it in a box that fell overboard in the Bay of Fundy in North America, the loss gave me greater pain than I have ever felt at losing thousands of pounds.”
My heart is with the autodidacts of the world, those who would forsake a meal so they can buy a book. Hazlitt says of him: “His ideas are served up, like pancakes, hot and hot.”