Tuesday, January 17, 2023

'Be Rapt Clean Out of Ourselves'

There are ways to read books other than ecstatically. In fact, to read in expectation of ecstasy might kill the desire to read anything. How many books can ascend to that standard? We can read for pragmatic, how-to reasons -- learning to rebuild a carburetor or ensuring the souffle doesn’t collapse. Or to fill an empty hour, pass the class or  review a book. As Arthur Krystal puts it in “Kid Roberts and Me,” about reading a book he last read at age fourteen in 1961: “However you slice it, reading critically is a more solemn affair than reading ecstatically.” 

Ecstasy while reading takes place unexpectedly. In fact, surprise is a prerequisite: I first knew it in high school when first reading the opening lines of “The World”: “I saw Eternity the other night, / Like a great ring of pure and endless light, / All calm, as it was bright.” I can’t describe my reaction to Henry Vaughan’s words except to say something ambushed me. I’ve read Vaughan’s work many times since and have never had a recurrence of so powerful an experience. I encountered “The World,” by the way, not in a poetry collection but in Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City (1951), adding to the sense of unexpectedness. Only two other writers have done this for me – Shakespeare and Traherne. In retrospect, reading their words felt like saying the magic words and – voila! These experiences came back while reading the opening sentence of Robert Louis Stevenson’s essay “A Gossip on Romance”:


“In anything fit to be called by the name of reading, the process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book, be rapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images, incapable of sleep or of continuous thought.”


A bit overdone but you get the idea. This is different from the ecstatic response I described earlier, less intense but still rare and gratifying, as when I read Nabokov or Beerbohm.

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