Saturday, September 08, 2018

'The Reluctant Deposit on the Mind's Floor'

I’m often mistaken for a teacher, on campus and off. I’m several pay grades below that classification, though I enjoy teaching in a less formal sense. If this blog has any higher purpose, it’s to share my experience of books with willing readers. I write about things that interest me, and it’s up to you to find the book in question or move on to something else. This, too, is teaching. In that sense, the most crucial teacher in my life has been the late Guy Davenport, whom I met only once, at his home in Lexington, Ky. In his review of Tim Hilton’s two-volume biography of Ruskin (collected in The Death of Picasso: New & Selected Writing, 2003), Davenport writes of Ruskin’s vast and eccentric Fors Clavigera:

“The book still belongs to the distinguished list of worthy and influential works that are almost never read even by those interested in literature and ideas: Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta, Horace Traubel’s Conversations with Walt Whitman in Camden, Thoreau’s Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and the Bible.”

It’s thanks to Davenport that I first read the Ruskin, Doughty and Traubel titles. The others I had already discovered on my own. A good teacher encourages our best instincts. Any of the books cited by Davenport could form the basis of an excellent class. All could last you a lifetime. When I took a class as a university sophomore in the Italian Renaissance, the sole text assigned by our admittedly eccentric professor was Jacob Burkhart’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860). Recently I was chatting with a Houston bookshop owner who mentioned having read Arabia Deserta. (Neither of us could make much progress in Doughty’s Dawn in Britain, another Davenport favorite.)  We must have sounded like seasoned fans of the first two Godfather movies, swapping favorite lines, though we remembered little in detail beyond the glory of the prose. C.H. Sisson said that all we ever really know is what he called “the reluctant deposit on the mind’s floor.” That’s what remains after you’ve forgotten everything else.

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