Posts Tagged ‘reading in bed

10
Feb
09

William Hazlitt, On Reading Old Books

“I have more confidence in the dead than the living”, writes William Hazlitt (1778-1830), the eminent English essayist of the Romantic Era, in his essay “On Reading Old Books”. This may come as a bit of a surprise. A critic and acquaintance of Wordsworth and Coleridge, Hazlitt was witnessing the poetic sea change of the Romantic period first-hand. He was immersed in a contemporary literature scene that must have been amongst the most thriving, exhilarating and inspiring in the history of English literature. And yet even Hazlitt found himself abandoning the literary rumpus of his day for the quiet meditation of an old book:

All these contradictions [of reading contemporary authors] and petty details interrupt the calm current of our reflections. If you want to know what any of the authors were who lived before our time, and are still objects of anxious inquiry, you have only to look into their works. But the dust and smoke and noise of modern literature have nothing in common with the pure, silent air of immortality.

For Hazlitt, old books are familiar books. New books, he says, are like “a strange dish”: “There is a want of confidence and security to second appetite.” An old book, on the other hand, is the trusted plain slice at the pizza corner, the burger and fries from your local pub, or a tasty home-baked quiche from a well-tried recipe: you know what you’re in for, and you know it’s going to be delicious. Of course, with old books, you get the additional advantage that, like an old and trusted friend, you can always learn something new. And you can take your time, too, without having to worry about rushing to the end; you can linger, or skip and skim, for you’ve been there already.

But Hazlitt rightly points out that the familiarity of old books extends to another level, namely the history shared by the book and the reader:

I not only have the pleasure of imagination and of a critical relish of he work, but the pleasures of memory added to it. It recalls the same feelings and associations which I had in first reading it, and which I can never have again in any other way. Standard productions of this kind are links in the chain of our conscious being. They bind together the different scattered divisions of our personal identity. They are landmarks and guides in our journey through life. They are pegs and loops on which we can hang up, or from which we can take down, at pleasure, the wardrobe of a moral imagination, the relics of our best affections, the tokens and records of our happiest hours.

In this passage Hazlitt sums up what I believe to be one of the most essential parts of the reading experience and one of the most sorely neglected parts of reader-response theory — the individual’s own history of reading. This history includes not only our thoughts and ideas, but also the physical journey we undertook to obtain a book, or how we happened to come upon it. Hazlitt, for example, recounts the delight he experienced when he received Cooke’s pocket edition of Tom Jones, and sniffs at the cheap novels from the Ballantyne brothers or the Minerva Press. Cooke’s Tom Jones, he remembers, “broke the spell”, and “Cooke’s edition of the ‘British Novelists’ was to me a dance through life, a perpetual gala-day. The sixpenny numbers of this work regularly contrived to leave off just in the middle of a sentence, and in the nick of the story. With what eagerness I used to look forward to the next number, and open the prints!” Hazlitt ends on the romantic note:

To what nameless ideas did they give rise, — with what airy delights I filled up the outlines, as I hung in silence over the page! Let me still recall them, that they may breathe fresh life into me, and that I may live that birthday of thought and romantic pleasure over again! Talk of the ideal! This is the only true ideal — the heavenly tints of Fancy reflected in the bubbles that float upon the spring-tide of human life.

From Reading in Bed, collected by Steven Gilbar.

31
Jan
09

Montaigne, The Commerce of Reading

Le malade n’est pas √† plaindre qui a la guarison en sa manche. — Montaigne, Les Essais, “De Trois Commerces”

“The sick man is not to be pitied who has his cure in his sleeve.” Or his books on his bookshelves, for that matter. Thus muses Michel de Montaigne in his essay on the commerce of reading. I must admit that up to now, I have not been too impressed by Montaigne the writer; the occasional aphorism notwithstanding, his writing and thinking sometimes seems higgledy-piggledy to me, and sometimes outright banal. What he has to say about the company of books, however, was well worthwhile:

In the experience and practice of this sentence [i.e. the above quotation], which is a very true one, all the benefit I reap from books consists; and yet I make as little use of it almost as those who know it not; I enjoy it as a miser does his money, in knowing that I may enjoy it when I please; my mind is satisfied with this right of possession. I never travel without books, either in peace or war; and yet I sometimes pass over several days, and sometimes months, without looking at them; I will read by and by, say I to myself, and rest content in this consideration, that I have them by me, to divert myself with them when I am so disposed, and call to mind what an ease and assistance they are to my life. ‘Tis the best viaticum I have yet found out for this human journey, and I very much pity those men of understanding who are unprovided with it. I rather accept of any sort of diversion, how light soever, in the feeling that this can never fail me.

Michel de Montaigne

We might dismiss this attitude as that of the book-fool, but I tend to agree with Montaigne that the sheer possession of books is comforting, soothing almost. Books are a reassuring presence; they invite you to converse with them, but they do not force you to; they promise an ailment to boredom, a promise to provide entertainment, knowledge, all that good stuff, and even a pearl of wisdom every now and then.

Reading “comforts me in my age and solitude,” writes Montaigne, “it eases of a troublesome weight of idleness, and it delivers me at all hours from company that I dislike.” Montaigne is not an obsessive-compulsive reader, but a common reader, ardent no doubt, and engaging and clever, but also leisurely, a reader who is well aware of reading’s place in his life, as well as its limitations and dangers:

Books have many charming qualities to such as know how to choose them; but every good has its ill; ’tis a pleasure that is not pure and unmixed an more than others; it has its inconveniences, and great ones too; the mind, indeed, is exercised by it, but the body, the care of which I have not forgotten, remains in the meantime without action, grows heavy and melancholy. I know no excess more prejudicial to me, nor more to be avoided in my declining age.

Lines such as these lead me to think that the comfort of books lies not only in their presence, but also in the knowledge that their authors can speak to us through the ages, and that — regardless of the fact that one of us read from a printed page sitting on a wooden chair, the other from a computer screen sitting on a couch — we have something in common.

From Reading in Bed, collected by Steven Gilbar. Montaigne’s essays are available in English at Gutenberg, and here’s the original passage in French.

27
Jan
09

Reading in Bed

Reading in Bed is an anthology of essays by Steven Gilbar. I picked up a copy today at Housing Works on my first day as a volunteer; Gilbar’s collection features writers¬† such as Montaigne, Hazlitt, Emerson, Hesse, Nabokov, among many others, musing on the subject of reading. The cover illustration is a beautiful painting by Bascove titled “Reading in Bed”, courtesy of the Uptown Gallery:

Reading in Bed by Bascove

This composition is nigh-perfect in capturing my ultimate delights: reading, beauty, books on bookshelves, a luscious peach, an elegant green library lamp, a comfy bed, and a cat. Have you ever wondered why readers and cats go so well together? Perhaps because both are rather solitary creatures. More on Reading in Bed as I make my way through the essays one by one (preferably in the manner pictured above).