Tuesday, October 29, 2013

`The World is Not Like Ourselves in All Respects'

In May 1912, five years after becoming the first English-language writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, Rudyard Kipling spoke to a gathering of fifty boys at Wellington College, a boarding school in Crowthorne, Berkshire, attended by his son, John “Jack” Kipling. Three years later, at the age of eighteen, Jack was killed in the Battle of Loos. Kipling called his talk “The Possible Advantages of Reading,” drolly titled to appeal to recalcitrant students. When he collected the talk in A Book of Words (1928), Kipling retitled it “The Uses of Reading,” which has been reprinted in Writings on Writing (1996), edited by Sandra Kemp and Lisa Lewis for Cambridge University Press. 

Few writers have known as much as Kipling about life – and books. He was not a university man, never grimly bookish or canon-enslaved, but we still read his translations of Horace. He was no snob, but a democrat of literature. He read like a writer, for sustenance, and he wrote for the reader, to give pleasure. He remains the finest writer of stories in English, and Kim is one of the last century’s best novels by an Englishman, more readable than anything by Virginia Woolf. Kipling’s reading was wide, unsystematic and fruitful. He read like an intelligent boy, not a schoolmaster. He read Henry James assiduously and James returned the favor by writing the introduction to Mine Own People (1891), a selection of Kipling’s stories for American readers. One of the few works of criticism in Kipling’s personal library was Johnson’s Lives of the English Poets, which he claimed to read for the stories, not the critical judgments. In his address to the boys at Wellington, Kipling says: 

“A certain knowledge of the classics is worth having, because it makes you realise that all the world is not like ourselves in all respects, and yet in matters that really touch the inside life of a man, neither the standards nor the game have changed.” 

To inhabit lives not our own, to think and feel with another’s sensibility, is bracing, healthy-minded and democratic, and is Kipling’s unspoken assumption as a writer. He befriends his readers, as he does his characters, and doesn’t presume to know what’s best for them. He tells the boys: 

“One can’t prescribe books, even the best books, to people unless one knows a good deal about each individual person. If a man is keen on reading, I think he ought to open his mind to some older man who knows him and his life, and to take his advice in the matter, and above all, to discuss with him the first books that interest him.” 

Over the weekend, my friend Helen Pinkerton wrote to me about this blog: 

“You are like a teacher taking a student through the library stacks and saying `Read this.  And this. And this.’ `And this is why.’ That kind of guidance, I think, must be necessary to the coming generation of students browsing the Net, who would be utterly lost in the wealth of information available. In the old days, we wandered the stacks; now they must wander the wilderness of the Net.” 

I would add that I’m wandering too, as was Kipling, though perhaps with more sense of direction than some. Kipling reminds the boys and us, his readers: “You mustn’t be afraid of fashions. The thing to remember is that all first-class stuff is as good and as new and as fresh now as in the day it was made.”

1 comment:

Denkof Zwemmen said...

My favorite Kipling story is The Disturber of Traffic -- one of the masterpieces of short fiction in English. If you haven't read it -- highly recommended.

In a review of some new biographies of Keats in the latest NYRB, Richard Holmes mentions a Kipling story, new to me, Wireless -- which I just perused, without thoroughly reading, on line -- in which the ghost of Keats comes through in a wireless Morse code transmission.

It hadn't occurred to me until now -- but there's a kind of synergy between that era's surprisingly widespread confidence in the validity of spiritualism and Marconi's invention. The latter must have bolstered the former.