Sunday, May 16, 2021

'In a Room the Hubbub Comes Back'

 “I seem too deaf to see what I read.” 

Removed from its original comic context, the observation says something important about reading. Just as I read aloud as I’m writing – yes, under my breath – so too do I read aloud anything worth reading, whether Keats or Joseph Epstein. A good writer works hard on the sound of his words; a polite reader listens carefully.


Charles Lamb is writing on this date, May 16, in 1826, in a letter to his Quaker friend Bernard Barton. After getting his customary Friends jokes out of the way, Lamb moves on – jokingly – to his growing deafness: “In the street, with the blended noises of life about me, I hear, and my head is lightened, but in a room the hubbub comes back, and I am deaf as a Sinner.” Anyone with incremental hearing loss will sympathize. The good thing about losing your hearing (I’ve had two surgeries on my left ear, to no avail) is that it renders so much boring conversation nonsensically surreal. You guess, usually incorrectly, at what the others are trying to say, substituting other words: “Weenie big blasts? Coats.” I still don’t know what that was all about. Lamb goes on:


“Did I tell you of a pleasant sketch [Thomas] Hood has done, which he calls Very Deaf Indeed? It is of a good naturd [sic] stupid looking old gentleman, whom a footpad has stopt, but for his extreme deafness cannot make him understand what he wants; the unconscious old gentleman is extending his ear-trumpet very complacently, and the fellow is firing a pistol into it to make him hear, but the ball will pierce his skull sooner than the report reach his sensorium.”   

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