Sunday, April 05, 2020

'Much Pleasure as Well as Profit'

“These short essays on the best old books in the world were inspired by the sudden death of an only son, without whom I had not thought life worth living. To tide me over the first weeks of bitter grief I plunged into this work of reviewing the great books from the Bible to the works of the eighteenth-century writers.”

A reader has told me about yet another writer whose name was unknown to me: George Hamlin Fitch (1852-1925). For more than thirty years he worked for the San Francisco Chronicle and for much of that time published a weekly column on its Sunday book page. The volume my reader suggested is Comfort Found in Good Old Books (1911), and the passage quoted above is from Fitch’s introduction. I defy you to read the whole thing without shedding a tear. He continues:

“The suggestion came from many readers who were impressed by the fact that in the darkest hour of sorrow my only comfort came from the habit of reading, which Gibbon declared he ’would not exchange for the wealth of the Indies.’ If these essays induce any one to cultivate the reading habit, which has been so great a solace to me in time of trouble, then I shall feel fully repaid.”

Fitch dissents from the two modes of reading most common in the twenty-first century: 1.) The academic, which is narcissistic, dull and irrelevant. 2.) The escapist, which views books as another home-entertainment option, like video games and Netflix. The former is inexcusable; the latter can be excused as less boring than watching football. In a more somber key, Fitch recasts Logan Pearsall Smith’s quip: “People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.” His choices present no surprises: the Greeks, the Bible, St. Augustine, Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Bunyan, Defoe, Boswell and the rest – the inexhaustible desert-island books. (Extra-credit question: Which books published since 1911 might be added to Fitch’s list without provoking laughter and derision? Besides Proust, I mean.)

I haven’t finished reading Fitch’s book but what most impresses me about his essays is that they were written by a newspaper man. I worked as a reporter for almost twenty-five years and never once met a well-read journalist. Those who did read seemed mired in the present. I have no reason to believe that has changed since I left the business. There’s nothing uppity or elitist about reading the books that matter, the ones that helped form us and our values. I differ with Fitch on at least one point: book clubs. He likes them. But I admire his sturdy matter-of-factness. In recommending Boswell’s Life of Johnson he writes:

“Read the book in spare half hours, when you are not hurried, and you will get from it much pleasure as well as profit. It is packed with amusement and information, and it is very modern in spirit, in spite of its old-fashioned style.”

1 comment:

mike zim said...

Thanks, for recommending an enjoyable read.

One note, re page 123:
Samuel Johnson, stood bareheaded in the rain for an hour in the Uttoxeter marketplace, "as penance for harsh words spoken to his father in a fit of boyish petulance years before."

A fuller description of that episode, from The Children's Friend:

"His father was a poor bookseller, and on market days carried a package of books to the village and sell them at a stall. One day, he was sick, and asked his son to go and sell in his place. Samuel refused, out of pride.
Fifty years later, the celebrated scholar and author never forgot his unkindness to his hard-working father, and determined to show his sorrow and repentance.
He went into the market-place at the time of business, uncovered his head and stood there for an hour in the pouring rain, on the very spot where the book-stall used to stand."