“Young men, especially in America, write to me and ask me to recommend ‘a course of reading.’ Distrust a course of reading! People who really care for books read all of them. There is no other course. Let this be a reply. No other answer shall they get from me, the inquiring young men.”
When I was one of those young American men, it would never have occurred to me to ask for help finding the next book to read. I still think of books as links in an invisible chain: one inevitably leads to others. No, not a chain. It’s more complicated than that. More like a mesh or net of complicated weave. Recently, David Ferry, after I reread some of his Horace, sent me to Peter Levi’s biography of the Roman poet, which moved me to read about the Kreipe caper as described in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Abducting a General, which in turn inspired me to pull out Sword of Honour so I can read it over the Christmas break, and that reminded me to get a copy of Philip Eade’s recent biography of Waugh. If I have “a course of reading,” call it “informed serendipity.”
The passage quoted at the top is from the title essay in Andrew Lang’s Adventures Among Books (1905). Previously, I described my limited experience with the prolific Lang, and I still have read only the essay “Adventures Among Books,” not the entire collection it’s drawn from. That’s because while reading a chapter in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969) by the late John Gross, I came upon this passage:
“This author did not, like Fulke Greville, retire into the convent of literature from the strife of the world, rather he was born to be, from the first, a dweller in the cloister of a library.”
Ambitious readers are freaks of nature, and I’ve met only two in my lifetime, and one of them is dead (he could quote Dante at length from memory, in Italian, in an Italian restaurant). Here’s the context for Gross’ use of the Lang quote: “Whatever subject he touched on – and in theory he offered to write about anything except religion and politics – his manner was almost always that of a man living in a book-lined universe. [Insert quote.] He read incessantly, and out of his reading he tried to construct an arcadia where the natives were always on friendly terms.”
Lang (1844-1912) is an extreme though thoroughly benign example of his species. Today he would be diagnosed with OCD and prescribed clomipramine. Lang had his blind spots. He seems not to have read the Russians whose lives overlapped his – Tolstoy, Chekhov and the rest. But that’s grousing. Here’s Gross on Lang’s lifelong relation to books: “He clung tenaciously – and, if challenged, petulantly – to the conviction that literature ought to remain the same cheerful pastime that it had seemed when he was a boy.” Amen.
[ADDENDUM: A reader, Tim Brewer, corrects me:
“In regard to your post in Anecdotal Evidence today, Lang’s book-lined Universe did include the Russians, though probably not much if anything of Chekhov (in English), given the dates. He wrote an essay ‘At the Sign of the Ship’ in the London Magazine, for May 1891, in which it is clear that he had read the Russian novelists but was unsympathetic to what he took to be their gloom-mongering. The sentiment chimes nicely with the `cheerful pastime’ conviction Gross attributes to Lang. For more po-faced critics such as F. R. Leavis, reading as a cheerful pastime cannot be a conviction, only grounds for conviction.
“`The genius of Tolstoi, Tourguenieff, and Dostvievsky there is no denying. One can only object that they deserve the punishment which Dante assigns to those who deliberately seek sadness. The world is trying enough, but it has its brighter moments. These, perhaps, we should rather seek to prolong by a certain cheerfulness in fiction. Shakspeare wrote As You Like It, and Much Ado about Nothing, and Henry IV, as well as Othello. He was not always in Hamlet's vein. But the Russians, as a rule, are for ever in the mood of the Prince of Denmark, and their example is contagious. Then their admirers, in some cases, will hear of nothing but the Russians, and the glorious Frenchmen and Finns, and Lithuanians. Sursum corda! We should have merry endings and prosperous heroes, now and again. Their gloom begets within me a certain prejudice against the gifted Muscovites. It is not exactly a literary judgment; it is a pardonable antipathy. One wearies of hearing Count Tolstoi called the Just—justissimus unus. One feels a reaction in favour of Gyp, when she is not writing her last novel, and outdoing Le Disciple on his own grubby and grimy ground. However, that there may be no ill feeling between this vessel and the realm of the Great White Czar, let us print a translation from Lermontoff, sent by a Scot in Russia. Lermontoff, like all great men, including Skobeleff, was a Scot, a Learmont, and mayhap a descendant of Thomas the Rhymer.’”]