Tuesday, December 31, 2013

`I Am a Sovereign in My Library'

“You double your existence.” 

That’s how Alexander Smith, the Scottish essayist, describes the effect of reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson. If a book constitutes an alternate life, one where we can enter at will and set up housekeeping, we might say the same of any worthy volume. Such books are simultaneously other and self, alien and native. I’m reading Giacomo Leopardi’s recently translated Zibaldone ("Hodge-Podge"). His is a sensibility foreign to mine, in some ways repellent, but I read him with sympathy. Even when he is foolish or posturing, I learn something.  I like a little grit in my diet. When he writes, on Aug. 22, 1820, “Reading is to the art of writing as experience is to the art of living in the world and knowing about other people and other things,” the very experience of reading him confirms the observation. Later in “A Shelf in My Bookcase,” when Smith writes-- 

“Boswell’s unconscious art is wonderful, and so is the result attained. This book has arrested, as never book did before, time and decay. Bozzy is really a wizard: he makes the sun stand still.” 

--we balk at the near floridness of the language, but concede the sentiment. Literature is not a zero-sum game. Great writers falter and mediocre writers stumble into sublimity, though rarely. Smith cultivates the essayist’s familiar alter ego of gentle, bookish solitary. He’s a less antic, less tormented Charles Lamb, and a very cozy writer. One reads him in order to remember that not every great writer is a Leopardi. In “Books and Gardens” he writes: 

I call myself a solitary, but sometimes I think I misapply the term. No man sees more company than I do. I travel with mightier cohorts around me than ever did Timour or Genghis Khan on their fiery marches. I am a sovereign in my library, but it is the dead, not the living, that attend my levees.” 

Smith was born on this date, Dec. 31, in 1829, and died on Jan. 25, 1867.

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