“I like a library where you can waste your time . . . You can only know after the event whether the time was wasted or gained. Without wasted time, what would there be? Newton’s apple is the fruit of wasted time. It is wasted time which invents, creates. And there are two kinds of literature: the literature of wasted time, which gives us Don Quixote, and that of time put to use, which gives us Ponson du Terrail. The literature produced by wasted time is the good kind.”
Pierre Alexis, Viscount of Ponson du Terrail (1829-1871) was the Joyce Carol Oates of nineteenth-century France. In twenty years he wrote some seventy-three books. He was a factory. His readerly counterpart consumes Harlequin romances by the board foot. Leys was fond of quoting Schopenhauer: “A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.” Paquet paraphrases Leys: “So, if we can’t know whether a book is good or not before we’ve read it, we may as well also realise that we read for ourselves first.”
An obvious point but one seldom acknowledged. Guilt- or duress-driven reading (as in schools and book clubs) turns the consumption of books into an onerous form of labor. Leys described himself as “more of a gluttonous omnivore like a dog,” whereas his wife was “more of a reflective gourmet like a cat.” Paquet quotes him again:
“The study of literature is of no practical use whatsoever – unless one would wish to become, of all things, a professor of literature.”
Asked at the turn of the century to name a twentieth-century book deserving of salvage, Leys selected three vastly different gems: Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, Natsume Sōseki’s Kokoro and Frank Worsely’s Shackleton’s Boat Journey.