Sunday, July 01, 2012

`Not to Be Peevish or Morose, or Suspicious'

A middle-aged reader in Manhattan says he once devoted most of his reading life to fiction, starting with the great realists of the nineteenth century. Now he seldom reads contemporary novels and has spent the last several years among the Greeks and Romans, supplementing them with history and eighteenth-century fiction. He enjoys reading the books assigned to his two teenage daughters in school, “everything from Macbeth to A Confederacy of Dunces.” He writes:

“As I have gotten older I am more aware that I have only so much time left in life to read, so I try to be more thoughtful with my selections. I gave up most magazine reading years ago; even though there was plenty of interesting and well written material, it really took away from more substantive book reading. The internet poses a similar challenge.”
Except for the teenage daughters, his experience resembles mine, and I suspect other dedicated readers who are no longer children will sense a similar kinship. I read less for diversion or entertainment and more  to learn something, in Kenneth Burke’s sense of books as “equipment for living.” Along with the dawning awareness that time is short and I don’t want to squander it, there’s a growing reliance on authors and books that have already proven themselves worthy of my time. More than ever, I’m reading what I’ve already read. I’m less likely to venture into uncharted territory, especially among contemporaries. One rereads not merely a book but the former selves who read it before. This can be amusing, sometimes nostalgic, often humbling. As one ages, one ought to become a better reader, with more experience and judgment to draw upon. In “The Constant Rereader’s Five-Foot Shelf” (Innocent Bystander: The Scene from the 70s), L.E. Sissman writes:
“A list of books that you reread is like a clearing in the forest: a level, clean, well-lighted place where you set down your burdens and set up your home, your identity, your concerns, your continuity in a world that is at best indifferent, at worst malign.”
It’s chastening to remember that Sissman, a wonderful poet and essayist, was forty-eight, eleven years my junior, when cancer killed him. Two of the books I’m now reading I’ve read before – The Drapier’s Letters by Swift and The Unity of Philosophical Experience by √Čtienne Gilson. From both I’m profiting more than in the past. Both have a newfound inevitability about them, and I sense I’m finally reading them appropriately, at the right time. In a 1931 essay, “Charles Whibley,” T.S. Eliot writes:
“Those persons who are drawn by the powerful attraction of Jonathan Swift read and re-read with enchanted delight The Drapier’s Letters; and these letters are journalism according to my hint of a definition, if anything is. But The Drapier’s Letters are such an important item now in English letters, so essential to anyone who would be well read in the literature of England [and Ireland], that we ignore the accident by which we still read them.”
The evolution of my reading life, my growing distrust of novelty and desire for reacquaintance, leave me suspicious of my true motives. Am I growing timid? Hidebound? Less adventuresome? Categorically suspicious of the new? At the age of thirty-two, Swift wrote a list of resolutions for his dotage, “When I Come to Be Old.” Among them are:
“-Not to be peevish or morose, or suspicious.”
“-Not to be over severe with young People, but give Allowances for their youthfull follyes and weaknesses.”


Helen Pinkerton said...

Thanks so much for the Sissman quotation. It is just right about rereading books such as James's "Portrait of a Lady" and "The Bostonians." Not to mention Gilson's "Unity of Philosophical Experience." And long poems, such as E. A. Robinson's "Rembrandt to Rembrandt."

George said...

I can't help thinking how much poorer English literature might have been had Swift kept to the spirit of such resolutions.