Friday, February 19, 2021

'Slow Reading and Long-Drawn Familiarity'

In The Anatomy of Bibliomania (1930), Holbrook Jackson introduced me to a writer whose name I had never encountered: Mark Rutherford, one of several pseudonyms adopted by the English journalist and translator of Spinoza's Ethics, William Hale White (1831-1913). Here’s the passage that held my attention: 

“None among great readers has enjoyed more deliberately the linked sweetness long drawn out of our more spacious writers, those long, leisurely books which rove and meander, saunter, and lounge through their lives  in an eternity of their own, than Mark Rutherford.”


Jackson is describing a form of literary pleasure taken for granted by earlier generations. Our forebears made a best-seller of Tristram Shandy and a celebrity of its author. Everyone read Dickens (or saw his movies), even into my lifetime. The attention span of the Twitter generation isn’t equipped for such indulgence, though old-fashioned readers will recall the luxury of three-deckers, deep, long narratives, autonomous universes that could be inhabited for days or weeks.


Quoting Letters to Three Friends, published posthumously in 1924, Jackson tells us Rutherford “loved the slow pages of the Spectators of Addison and Steele,” and “the slow walking pace of Clarissa.” He goes on:


“He read through the Bible once in every two or three years, an hour daily before breakfast [italics indicate quotes from Rutherford’s text], and found it profitable beyond almost any other book [that almost seems significant].”


Rutherford read more than once such substantial volumes as Carlyle’s Frederick the Great (“the great modern epic”), John Wesley’s Journal, Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Doughty’s Arabia Deserta and The Dawn in Britain. Boswell’s Life of Johnson and Tour in the Hebrides, Jackson tells us, “made him wonder  why he should ever read a new book; such works have the peculiar power of being inexhaustible.” Obviously, Rutherford dates from the heroic age of reading. One feels inadequate. Jackson finishes his paean to Rutherford with this:


“[T]o conclude this matter Mark Rutherford, letting us into his secret of slow reading and long-drawn familiarity, confesses that he goes over the old books, Bacon, Shakespeare, Milton, and those others, again and again, because he is gotten into their ways, become tuned to them, responding to them as to the known, tried, approved; the new is foreign; it has no roots and may be forgotten to-morrow: in the reading of it, therefore, there is no profit.”


Melissa said...

I always loved imagining how people could just spend that time reading/studying and writing in that era. Great post.

Nige said...

Mark Rutherford's house in Carshalton still stands, just a short walk from mine. I tried to read his once famous Autobiography once but couldn't get on with it. On top of all that heroic reading, he also found time to translate Spinoza's Ethics – no mean feat.