Wednesday, March 06, 2013

`Both Bracing and Comforting'

In the long haul, when other pleasures have faded or betrayed us, books go on reliably delivering sustenance, amusement and something medicinal like ginseng. What else besides reading, except possibly writing or making music, can you do for hours at a stretch while conscious and without risking your life? That’s a rhetorical question and I’m not actively soliciting answers. My point is, for serious readers life is inconceivable without printed matter and some of us, even without book in hand, are mulling over something we read ten minutes or forty years ago. Here’s the English literary critic John Bayley introducing Hand Luggage: A Personal Anthology (2001): 

“It is, possibly, a good thing to go through life with something useless for the mind to carry, a daily supply of that which not only remains memorable, but which can also act as a diversion from daily business and a consolation in daily anxiety….What travels most easily and most engagingly in our daily consciousness can be lost and regained from day to day; it becomes a mental habit, an addiction which there is no need to worry about…” 

The purpose of what Bayley calls a “random anthology of the mind” is, to use an old-fashioned word, succor. I find his use of “useless” a little misleading. I’m likely to resort to a Shakespeare sonnet or “Invictus,” or a lyric by Dylan or Dorothy Fields, when frightened, confused, sick or bored. Our grandparents, even if not readers, would have understood the impulse. Even fluff can have utility. Bayley’s first entry is from a letter Sydney Smith (1771-1845) wrote to Lady Georgiana Morpeth on Feb. 16, 1820. It’s a pep talk of sorts, rather like Bayley’s book, and the first of Smith’s exhortations is “Live as well as you dare.” Numbers three (“Amusing books.”) and twelve – “Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy sentimental people, and every thing likely to excite feeling or emotion not ending in active benevolence.” – pose potential contradictions, but working out the inconsistencies might itself offer satisfactions. 

Bayley blithely ignores highbrow/lowbrow, canon-central/obscure, genius/pulp distinctions, because that’s how our reading lives, in the privacy of our skulls, actually work. To object to his inclusion of Coventry Patmore’s “The Angel in the House” or Gelett Burgess’ “Trapping Fairies” is beside the point. Would you prefer Charles Olson? No, it’s the worth of a book’s content, its abiding human appeal, that matters. In an essay posted on Tuesday, the Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., reminds us: 

“The fact is that books, as such, do not age or have weight. What ages and weighs are the paper on which they are written, the binding, and the covers. For a book is only accidentally a physical thing. But analogous to our bodies, it needs something to bear its reality, its soul, something to make it visible.” 

Call a good book soul food. We can weigh the worth of Bayley’s book not only by the quality of the poems and prose he collects but by his example. He’s a reader who cares enough about his reading to remember it and share old favorites with us, comparably devoted readers. He includes his favorite Philip Larkin poem, “Absences,” and writes: 

“…Larkin’s extremely negative views of life, politics, and society – you name it – are always in the background of his poetry. I feel that this negativism, as one would have to call it, is both bracing and comforting, as well as staying permanently in the mind in a uniquely and quietly haunting way.” 

When I was young, snobbery and a misguided work ethic kept me from enjoying anthologies or loosely organized grab bags of anything. Reading less than all of Gibbon or Musil was a cheat. Now I know better. With nothing left to prove, my only goal is to read what interests me, on any subject, at any length, for as long as I wish. At some level this means, at long last, I’m a grownup.

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