Tuesday, July 17, 2018

'Solemn, Augustan, Elegant, Periodic, Musical'

“Unless your experience is singularly unlike my own, there are a number of books you are ‘always meaning to read.’ Somebody, not the first bore you met, but somebody whose opinions you value, who understands your tastes, assured you that one of these was ‘your book.’ And you meant to read it and are still meaning to; but you haven’t taken the trouble to order it from your bookseller, or perhaps you did, but when it arrived it was a bigger book than you expected, and you put it aside, telling yourself that you would have a go at it some time.”

Ronald Knox refers specifically to “Spiritual Books,” the title of a 1956 essay collected in Ronald Knox: A Man for All Seasons (Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2016), edited by Francesca Bugliani Knox. My “always-meaning-to-read-list” is fairly modest. First and most crusted with guilt is Lady Murasaki’s Tale of Genji. It’s the shining peak of Mount Fuji that represents for this Western reader much of East Asian literature. As a sophomore I took a class in the Modern Japanese Novel because I liked the instructor. It was my first encounter with Tanizaki, Mishima, Kawabata and best of all, Natsume Sōseki’s Kokoro, but I’ve read little else in those literatures and have no good excuse.

I’ve not read deeply in the Church Fathers. St. Augustine I know but not, for example, Tertullian. I’ve read little of Stendhal and would like to read the rest of Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart. I have no regrets for largely ignoring German literature. Life is short. I’ve never read Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius, and Yvor Winters speaks well of William Robertson, the eighteenth-century Scottish historian. There’s still time, of course, and it’s not all remorse. After years of stalling I read Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews. When I met him in 1987, Hilberg signed my copy of the first volume. After many ridiculous delays, I read Henry Adams’ The History of the United States of America (1801 to 1817). The major obstacle to reading long-deferred books is that today I mostly read books I’ve already read. I return frequently to George Eliot because I’ve read her novels before and like her and want to know that pleasure at least one more time. Such observations, like all descriptions of reading habits, are idiosyncratic and apply to no one else. Knox writes later in “Spiritual Books”:

“You’ll see at once what the trouble is about an article like this. The writer of it can only explain what kind of book he finds useful; but we are all so differently built that there’s no guarantee it is going to be useful to anybody else.”

One of the most “useful" and rereadable books I know is Knox’s Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion. Last year, when Mathew Walther reviewed Ronald Knox: A Man for All Seasons for First Things, he wrote:

“But he was not one of those authors like Trevor-Roper—or Waugh himself during the writing of his memoirs—who gives one the impression of having composed with Gibbon or another exemplar open on his lap. Like Newman’s, his style is at once high—solemn, Augustan, elegant, periodic, musical—and low—breezy, chatty, colloquial—without the slightest hint of discord. It is identifiable and wholly singular.”

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