Wednesday, August 23, 2017

`Reading's Civilizing Effects'

Knowing readers stock a sub-library of reliably consoling volumes that can be opened to any page and read anywhere, under any conditions short of blindness. They are the books Max Beerbohm calls “dippable-into.” Think Burton and Boswell. High on the list is The March of Literature (1938), the last of the eighty books Ford Madox Ford published during his life, a 900-page survey subtitled From Confucius’ Day to Our Own. First, a few samples by the self-described “old man mad about writing.” Here Ford nicely characterizes the best of eighteenth-century English prose:

“In Gibbon we come upon a figure very different in timber from any of the other eighteenth century littérateurs, save only Richardson – and Johnson, if you can persuade yourself to think of him as a writer and not merely as a dancing bear, growling numbers in and out.”

And here, Keats the writer, not Keats the wraith:

“Before Keats alone, of all these poets—except Christina Rossetti—the impatient prose writer must sheathe his scalpel. Before the century closed—and even in the hands of Landor—prose had become the only keen instrument of the scrupulous writer. But the verbal felicities and labors of Keats placed him not infrequently beside any prose writer that you like to name. And in words he was a perfectly conscious and perfectly self-critical artist.”

Even when he’s wrong, Ford is interestingly wrong which is preferable to being boringly right. He spent 1937 and 1938 lecturing at Olivet College in Michigan, and writing The March of Literature. In the second volume of his Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life (1996), Max Saunders describes Ford’s compendium as “an impressionist textbook, in that it creates the illusion of orderly literary history in order to subvert and detemporalize it.” Well, maybe. It’s too spirited and anecdotal to be a textbook and I don’t think Ford is subverting anything. He’s organizing enthusiasms. Saunders quotes a letter about the book Ford wrote to his English publisher, Allen & Unwin, in which he expresses astonishment at how “readable” the classics now seem to him:

“I found myself for instance reading the Book of Job, Orlando Furioso, or Chaucer’s Palamon and Arcite [The Knight’s Tale] as if they were say Mrs. Agatha Christie and, trying to rest my mind with light literature, I found myself  turning to Dante’s Paolo and Francesca as being more restful company . . . .”  

During the writing, Ford was sixty-four years old and ailing, but some days he worked at the manuscript for fourteen hours. He was dead thirteen months after publication. Saunders gets The March of Literature, as many readers and critics have not: “Its postures and opinions are less the indulgence of tastes than a captivating demonstration of what it means to read, and of reading’s civilizing effects.”

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