Sunday, June 24, 2018

'A Certain Mellow Wisdom'

In bookman’s argot: “Quarto, original yellow cloth, rough-cut page edges, printed paper spine label, no dust jacket.” More subjectively, the volume has heft yet leaves an impression of modesty, like its author, Max Beerbohm. I think I bought a first edition of his finest work, the essay collection And Even Now (William Heinemann, 1920), for $20. I say “I think” because firsts can be cabalistically difficult to identify, and I’m not among the initiated. Not that it matters, as I’m a reader not a collector, but it’s not a book I ever thought I would own. Like Boswell and Montaigne, it is irreducibly a book, a distillation of bookishness, not to be confused with a text, a bestseller, one component among many of an oeuvre or “a good read.” In one of the included essays, “Books Within Books,” Beerbohm writes with admirable dogmatism and irony:

“But how few, after all, the books that are books! Charles Lamb let his kind heart master him when he made that too brief list of books that aren’t. Book is an honourable title, not to be conferred lightly. A volume is not necessarily, as Lamb would have had us think, a book because it can be read without difficulty. The test is, whether it was worth reading. Had the author something to set forth? And had he the specific gift for setting it forth in written words? And did he use this rather rare gift conscientiously and to the full? And were his words well and appropriately printed and bound? If you can say Yes to these questions, then only, I submit, is the title of ‘book’ deserved.”

Beerbohm refers to Lamb’s “Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading,” another bit of essential reading for consumers of genuine books. Beerbohm is a dandy without prejudice or snobbery. He enjoys life and likes good things. He is the rare sort of writer who makes good company. He is a sharer by nature. His sense of irony can be so rarefied as to be mistaken for nonexistent. He has no case to prove, ax to grind or followers to accumulate. You can’t stomach so quiet and subtle a sensibility? No harm done. You won’t hurt his feelings. In “Laughter,” the final essay in And Even Now, he tells us:

“Come to me in some grievous difficulty: I will talk to you like a father, even like a lawyer. I’ll be hanged if I haven’t a certain mellow wisdom. But if you are by way of weaving theories on some one who will luminously confirm or powerfully rend them, I must, with a hang-dog air, warn you that I am not your man. I suffer from a strong suspicion that things in general cannot be accounted for through any formula or set of formulae, and that any one philosophy, howsoever new, is no better than any other. This is in itself a sort of philosophy, and I suspect it accordingly; but it has for me the merit of being the only one that I can make head or tail of.”

No comments: