Wednesday, October 23, 2019

'The Habits of the Confirmed Reader'

Last week I found myself seated in the waiting room of an imaging center, waiting – what else? – to have x-rays taken of my spine. Normally I would have a book with me but I had left it in the car and had no desire to descend twenty-one floors and return to the parking garage to recover it. I was reduced to watching a show about home remodeling on the wall-mounted television or reading Vogue.  I’m old enough to remember when doctors’ waiting rooms were stocked with National Geographic and Field and Stream.

In “Confirmed Readers” (In the Name of the Bodleian and Other Essays, 1905), Augustine Birrell recalls the story of Edmond Malone, the Irish Shakespearean scholar, visiting Dr. Johnson and finding him roasting apples and reading a history of Birmingham. Malone observed that local histories were generally dull, and Johnson agreed. “These are some of the solitary expedients to which we are driven by sickness,” Johnson added. “I have been confined this week past; and here you find me roasting apples, and reading the History of Birmingham.” Birrell comments:

“This anecdote pleasingly illustrates the habits of the confirmed reader. Nor let the worldling [OED: “sophisticate, cosmopolitan”] sneer. Happy is the man who, in the hours of solitude and depression, can read a history of Birmingham.”

Or a six-month-old copy of Vogue, the one with three women on the cover, none of whom I recognized despite them being described as “superstars.”


rgfrim said...


If you carry around a 5” x 8” Nook reader as I do you can claim to be, as I have, perhaps the only person on the trolley car who is reading Calvin’s “ Institutes of the Christian Religion”. I encourage you to overcome your dismissal of e-readers : the words are just the same as the words you find between bindings, and they offer easier access. I just finished reading James’’s “Varieties of Religious Experience” completely on the Nook with suitable comprehension and perfect enjoyment of The Master’s Brother’s prose. It didn’t hurt at all.

Richard Zuelch said...

Two points: (1) I haven't thought of Augustine Birrell in years. Thanks for the reminder. (2) I hope everything turns out fine with your spine.