Sunday, September 22, 2013

`Be Sure of Finding Something Interesting'

Aldous Huxley was first inflicted on me in the eighth grade when we were assigned Brave New World. My transition from children’s books (science fiction, Tolkien) to literature (Kafka, Thoreau) was well underway, and Huxley’s novel (like 1984) struck me as the former disguised as the latter. It was thesis-driven and grindingly dull, written in indifferent prose, and that pretty much fixed my understanding of Huxley as a big-idea writer of shallow means – a species much favored by teachers. Mike Gilleland has been reading Huxley’s essay “Books for the Journey,” collected in Along the Road: Notes and Essays of a Tourist (1925), and quotes excerpts from it here, here and here. The theme interests me – which books to pack for sustenance – so I borrowed Huxley’s Complete Essays, Vol. 1: 1920-1925, read the entire essay and found a few things of interest not quoted by Mike. Some of it gibes with my experience. For instance, he lists the essential qualities of a “good traveling-book”: 

“It should be a work of such a kind that one can open it anywhere and be sure of finding something interesting, complete in itself and susceptible of being read in a short time. A book requiring continuous attention and prolonged mental effort is useless on a voyage; for leisure, when one travels, is brief and tinged with physical fatigue, the mind distracted and unapt to make protracted exertions.” 

This is true to my reading, especially on long jet flights. Huxley goes on to recommend poetry anthologies, and that’s a prudent choice, but I would also suggest books of brief prose passages – journals, diaries, letters. Mike and I are both reading Leopardi’s recently translated Zibaldone, which would be excellent for cross-continental travel while having the advantage of being pleasingly zaftig (2,592 pages). Huxley’s choice of La Rochefoucauld is ideal. An aphorism, he rightly says, “does not depend on verbal wit. Its effect is not momentary, and the more we think of it, the more substance we find in it” – making it at once compact and dense, and thus ideally portable. Most commendable is Huxley’s endorsement of Boswell’s Life of Johnson as a volume that “combines expansive aphorisms with anecdotes.” 

He praises a technological development in printing – the use by Oxford Press of India paper, which permits publication of small octavo volumes, long before the paperback revolution and ebooks. Huxley gives Henry Frowde, a fascinating character, most of the credit: “Thanks to Henry Frowde one can get a million words of reading matter into a rucksack and hardly feel the difference in its weight.” He goes on to celebrate “what in my opinion is the best traveler’s book of all – a volume (any one of the thirty-two will do) of the twelfth, half-size edition of the Encyclopedia.” Here I part company with Huxley and laud Frowde’s contribution. My most frequent traveling companions have been my two-volume Lives of the English Poets by Samuel Johnson and a one-volume Gulliver’s Travels – both pocket-sized, hard-covered and published by Oxford.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Those old Oxford World Classic pocketsize eidtions are a treasure. I wish they were still being published. Avenel Press is printing replicas in China: replicating the small size but not the onionskin paper.

I wanted to read Huxley's essay, after reading your post, but my library does not have Huxley's Essays. However, I was able to find a copy online at
One can click on the "Full Size" button for easier reading, or download the pdf.