A friend has read Guy Davenport’s “On Reading” (The Hunter Gracchus, 1996) and asks for my thoughts on what the essayist calls “reading for style.” Though as exacting a prose stylist as I know (you would recognize his words read to you anonymously and without context), Davenport was not a dogmatic aesthete. For him, style is never a veneer of pretty words or sensitive insights. It’s an expression of sensibility. A mature, painstaking, dedicated writer can hardly help writing the way he does, down to the level of punctuation and the choice of prepositions. Like DNA, true style identifies the individual. In “On Reading,” Davenport outlines the history of his experience with books, beginning with childhood. He describes himself as “retarded” as a boy and slow to learn to read, in part because of his teachers:
“[We have] a society that reads badly and communicates execrably about what we read. The idea persists that reading is an activity of thoughtful, idealistic, moral people called authors and that they are committed to protecting certain values vital to a well-ordered society. Books mold character, enforce patriotism, and provide a healthy way to pass the leisurely hour.”
His description of popular book sentiment is even truer today, when many readers long for propaganda that substantiates the prejudices they already hold. Davenport counters: “For the real use of imaginative reading is precisely to suspend one’s mind in the workings of another sensibility, quite literally to give oneself over to Henry James or Conrad or Ausonius, to Yuri Olyesha, Bashō, and Plutarch.” Clearly, this notion is foreign to many readers and, in Davenport’s words, leaves little room for “the apprehension and appreciation of style.”
Davenport formulates no strict definition of literary style and admits his discovery of style came from his encounters with “various humble books,” including Hendrik Van Loon’s “whimsical” The Story of Mankind (1921). “It was this book," he writes, "that began to make something of an aesthete of me, for I progressed to Van Loon’s biography of Rembrandt (conflating the rich experience of [Antonina Vallentin’s] Leonardo biography with the pleasure of reading for style), a book I kept reading for the pleasure of the prose, despite my ignorance of his historical setting.”
Reading for style is the opposite of reading strictly for utilitarian purposes, whether the text at hand is a bestselling potboiler or the operator’s manual for your washing machine. There is an extra dimension to texts embodying style, not perceptible to all, that makes reading them one of the glories of being human.