Essays in Miniature/Our Friends, The Books


ESSAYS IN MINIATURE


OUR FRIENDS, THE BOOKS


THERE is a short paragraph in Hazlitt's Conduct of Life that I read very often, and always with fresh delight. He is offering much good counsel to a little lad at school, and when he comes to a matter upon which most counselors are wont to be exceedingly didactic and diffuse—the choice of books—he condenses all he has to say into a few wise and gentle words that are well worth taking to heart:

"As to the works you will have to read by choice or for amusement, the best are the commonest. The names of many of them are already familiar to you. Read them as you grow up with all the satisfaction in your power, and make much of them. It is perhaps the greatest pleasure you will have in life, the one you will think of longest, and repent of least. If my life had been more full of calamity than it has been (much more than yours, I hope, will be) I would live it over again, my poor little boy, to have read the books I did in my youth."

In all literature there is nothing truer or better than this, and its sad sincerity contrasts strangely with the general tone of the essay, which is somewhat in the manner of Lord Chesterfield. But here, at least, Hazlitt speaks with the authority of one whose books had ever been his friends; who had sat up all night as a child over Paul and Virginia, and to whom the mere sight of an odd volume of some good old English author, on a street stall, brought back with keen and sudden rapture the flavor of those early joys which he remembered longest, and repented least. His words ring consolingly in these different days, when we have not only ceased reading what is old, but when—a far greater misfortune—we have forgotten how to read "with all the satisfaction in our power," and with a simple surrendering of ourselves to the pleasure which has no peer. There are so many things to be considered now besides pleasure, that we have well-nigh abandoned the effort to be pleased. In the first place, it is necessary to "keep up" with a decent proportion of current literature, and this means perpetual labor and speed, whereas idleness and leisure are requisite for the true enjoyment of books. In the second place, few of us are brave enough to withstand the pressure which friends, mentors and critics bring to bear upon us, and which effectually crushes anything like the weak indulgence of our own tastes. The reading they recommend being generally in the nature of a corrective, it is urged upon us with little regard to personal inclination; in fact, the less we like it, the greater our apparent need. There are people in this world who always insist upon others remodeling their diet on a purely hygienic basis; who entreat us to avoid sweets or acids, or tea or coffee, or whatever we chance to particularly like; who tell us persuasively that cress and dandelions will purify our blood; that celery is an excellent febrifuge; that shaddocks should be eaten for the sake of their quinine, and fish for its phosphorus; that stewed fruit is more wholesome than raw; that rice is more nutritious than potatoes;—who deprive us, in a word, of that hearty human happiness which should be ours when dining. Like Mr. Woodhouse, they are capable of having the sweetbreads and asparagus carried off before our longing eyes, and baked apples provided as a substitute.

It is in the same benevolent spirit that kind-hearted critics are good enough to warn us against the books we love, and to prescribe for us the books we ought to read. With robust assurance they offer to give our tutelage their own personal supervision, and their disinterested zeal carries them occasionally beyond the limits of discretion. I have been both amazed and gratified by the lack of reserve with which these unknown friends have volunteered to guide my own footsteps through the perilous paths of literature. They are so urgent, too, not to say severe, in their manner of proffering assistance: "To Miss Repplier we would particularly recommend"—and then follows a list of books of which I dare say I stand in open need; but which I am naturally indisposed to consider with much kindness, thrust upon me, as they are, like paregoric or a porous plaster. If there be people who can take their pleasures medicinally, let them read by prescription and grow fat! But let me rather keep for my friends those dear and familiar volumes which have given me a large share of my life's happiness. If they are somewhat antiquated and out of date, I have no wish to flout their vigorous age. A book, Hazlitt reminds us, is not, like a woman, the worse for being old. If they are new, I do not scorn them for a fault which is common to all their kind. Paradise Lost was once new, and was regarded as a somewhat questionable novelty. If they come from afar, or are compatriots of my own, they are equally well-beloved. There can be no aliens in the ranks of literature, no national prejudice in an honest enjoyment of art. The book, after all, and not the date or birthplace of its author, is of material importance. "It seems ungracious to refuse to be a terræ filius, says Mr. Arnold; "but England is not all the world." Neither, for that matter, is America, nor even Russia. The universe is a little wider and a little older than we are pleased to think, and to have lived long and traveled far does not necessarily imply inferiority. The volume that has crossed the seas, the volume that has survived its generation, stand side by side with their new-born American brother, and there is no lack of harmony in such close companionship. Books of every age and of every nation show a charming adaptability in their daily intercourse; and, if left to themselves, will set off each other's merits in the most amiable and disinterested manner, each one growing better by contact with its excellent neighbor. It is only when the patriotic critic comes along, and stirs up dissensions in their midst, that this peaceful atmosphere is rent with sudden discord; that the English book grows disdainful and supercilious; the American, aggressive and sarcastic; the French, malicious and unkind. It is only when we apply to them a test which is neither wise nor worthy that they show all their bad qualities, and afford a wrangling ground for the ill-natured reviewers of two continents.

There is a story told of the Russian poet, Pushkin, which I like to think true, because it is so pretty. When he was carried home fatally wounded from the duel which cost him his life, his young wife, who had been the innocent cause of the tragedy, asked him whether there were no relatives or friends whom he wished to see summoned to his bedside. The dying man lifted his heavy eyes to the shelf where stood his favorite books, and murmured faintly in reply, "Farewell, my friends." When we remember that Pushkin lived before Russian literature had become a great and dispiriting power, when we realize that he had never been ordered by critics to read Turguéneff, never commanded severely to worship Tolstoï or be an outcast in the land, never even reveled in the dreadful gloom of Dostoïevsky, it seems incredible to the well-instructed that he should have loved his books so much. It is absolutely afflicting to think that many of these same volumes were foreign, were romantic, perhaps even cheerful in their character; that they were not his mentors, his disciplinarians, his guides to a higher and sadder life, but only his "friends." Why, Hazlitt himself could have used no simpler term of endearment. Charles Lamb might have uttered the very words when he closed his patient eyes in the dull little cottage at Edmonton. Sir Walter Scott might have murmured them on that still September morn when the clear rippling of the Tweed hushed his tired heart to rest. I think that Shelley bade some swift, unconscious farewell to all the dear delights of reading, when he thrust into his pocket the little volume of Keats, with its cover bent hastily backward, and rose, still dreamy with fairy-land, to face a sudden death. I think that Montaigne bade farewell to the fourscore "every-day books" that were his chosen companions, before turning serenely away from the temperate pleasures of life.

For all these men loved literature, not contentiously, nor austerely, but simply as their friend. All read with that devout sincerity which precludes petulance, or display, or lettered asceticism, the most dismal self-torment in the world. In that delicious dialogue of Landor's between Montaigne and Scaliger, the scholar intimates to the philosopher that his library is somewhat scantily furnished, and that he and his father between them have written nearly as many volumes as Montaigne possesses on his shelves. "Ah!" responds the sage with gentle malice, "to write them is quite another thing; but one reads books without a spur, or even a pat from our Lady Vanity."

Could anything be more charming, or more untrue than this? Montaigne, perched tranquilly on his Guyenne hill-slope, may have escaped the goad; but we, the victims of our swifter day, know too well how remorselessly Lady Vanity pricks us round the course. Are we not perpetually showing our paces at her command, and under the sharp incentive of her heel? Yet Charles Lamb, in the heart of London, preserved by some fine instinct the same intellectual freedom that Montaigne cherished in sleepy Gascony. He too was fain to read for pleasure, and his unswerving sincerity is no less enviable than the clearness of his literary insight. Indeed, while many of his favorite authors may have no message for our ears, yet every line in which he writes his love is pregnant with enjoyment; every word expresses subtly a delicious sense of satisfaction. The soiled and torn copies of Tom Jones and The Vicar of Wakefield from the circulating library, which speak eloquently to him of the thousand thumbs that have turned over each well-worn page; the "kind-hearted play-book" which he reaches down from some easy shelf; the old Town and Country Magazine which he finds in the window-seat of an inn; the "garrulous, pleasant history" of Burnet; the "beautiful, bare narrative" of Robinson Crusoe; the antiquated, time-stained edition of "that fantastic old great man," Robert Burton; the Folio Beaumont and Fletcher—all these and many more are Lamb's tried friends, and he writes of them with lingering affection. He is even able, through some fine choice of words, to convey to us the precise degree and quality of pleasure which they yield him, and which he wins us to share, not by exhortations or reproaches, but gently, with alluring smiles, and hinted promises of reward. How craftily he holds each treasured volume before our eyes! How apt the brief, caressing sentence in which he sings its praises!—"The sweetest names, and which carry a perfume in the mention, are Kit Marlowe, Drayton, Drummond of Hawthornden, and Cowley." "Milton almost requires a solemn service of music to be played before you enter upon him. Who listens, had need bring docile thoughts, and purged ears." "Winter evenings—the world shutout—with less of ceremony the gentle Shakespeare enters. At such a season, the Tempest, or his own Winter's Tale."

In fact, the knowledge of when to read a book is almost as valuable as the knowledge of what book to read, and Lamb, as became a true lover of literature, realized instinctively that certain hours and certain places seem created expressly for the supreme enjoyment of an author, who yields to these harmonious surroundings his best and rarest gifts. To pick up The Faerie Queene as a stop-gap in the five or six impatient minutes before dinner, to carry Candide into the "serious avenues" of a cathedral, to try and skim over Richardson when in the society of a lively girl—Lamb knew too well that these unholy feats are the accomplishments of an intellectual acrobat, not of a modest and simple-hearted reader. Hazlitt also was keenly alive to the influences of time and place. His greatest delight in poring over the books of his youth lay in the many recollections they aroused of scenes and moments rich in vanished joys. He opened a faded, dusty volume, and behold! the spot where first he read it, the day it was received, the feeling of the air, the fields, the sky, all turned to him with charming distinctness, and with them returned his first rapturous impression of that long-closed, long-neglected romance: "Twenty years are struck off the list, and I am a child again." Mr. Pater lays especial emphasis on the circumstances under which our favorite authors are read. "A book," he says, "like a person, has its fortunes with one; is lucky or unlucky in the precise moment of its falling in our way; and often, by some happy accident, ranks with us for something more than its independent value." Thus it is that Marius and Fabian, nestled in the ripened corn amid the cool brown shadows, receive from the Golden Ass of Apuleius a strange keen pleasure; each lad taking from the story that which he is best fitted to absorb; each lad as unmindful of the other's feelings as of the grosser elements in the tale. For without doubt a book has a separate message for every reader, and tells him, of good or evil, that which he is able to hear. Plato, indeed, complains of all books that they lack reticence or propriety toward different classes of persons, and his protest embodies the aversion of the flexible Greek mind for the precision of written literature. A poem or an oration which, crystallized into characters, speaks to all alike, and reveals itself indiscriminately to everybody, is of less value to the ancient scholar than the poem or oration which lingers in the master's mind, and maintains a delicate reserve toward the inferior portion of the community. Plato is so far removed from the modern spirit which seeks to persuade the multitude to read Shakespeare and Milton, that he practically resents their peering with rude, but pardonable curiosity, into the stately domains of genius. We have now grown so insistently generous in these matters that our unhappy brothers, harassed beyond endurance, may well envy the plebeian Greeks their merciful limitations; or wish, with the little girl in Punch, that they had lived in the time of Charles II., "for then education was very much neglected." But strive as we may, we cannot coerce great authors into universal complaisance. Plato himself, were he so unfortunate as to be living now, would recognize and applaud their manifest reserves. Even to the elect they speak with varying voices, and it is sometimes difficult to believe that all have read alike. When Guy Mannering was first given to the public, who awaited it with frantic eagerness, Wordsworth thoughtfully observed that it was a novel in the style of Mrs. Radcliffe. Murray, from whom one expects more discernment, wrote to Hogg that Meg Merrilies was worthy of Shakespeare; "but all the rest of the novel might have been written by Scott's brother, or any other body." Blackwood, about the same time, wrote to Murray: "If Walter Scott be the author of Guy Mannering, he stands far higher in this line than in his former walk." One of these verdicts has been ratified by time, but who could suppose that Julia Mannering and honest Dandy Dinmont would ever have whispered such different messages into listening ears!

And it is precisely because of the independence assumed by books, that we have need to cherish our own independence in return. They will not all be our friends, and not one of them will give itself freely to us at the dictation of a peremptory critic. Hazlitt says nobly of a few great writers, notably Milton and Burke, that "to have lived in the cultivation of an intimacy with such works, and to have familiarly relished such names, is not to have lived in vain." This is true, yet if we must seek for companionship in less august circles, there are many milder lights who shine with a steady radiance. It is not the privilege of every one to love so great a prose writer as Burke, so great a poet as Milton. "An appreciation of Paradise Lost," says Mr. Mark Pattison, "is the reward of exquisite scholarship;" and the number of exquisite scholars is never very large. To march up to an author as to the cannon's mouth is at best but unprofitable heroism. To take our pleasures dutifully is the least likely way to enjoy them. The laws of Crete, it is said, were set to music, and sung as alluringly as possible after dinner; but I doubt if they afforded a really popular pastime. The well-fed guests who listened to such decorous chants applauded them probably from the standpoint of citizenship, rather than from any undisguised sentiment of enjoyment, and a few degenerate souls must have sighed occasionally over the joys of a rousing and unseemly chorus. We of to-day are so rich in laws, so amply disciplined at every turn, that we have no need to be reminded at dinner of our obligations. A kind-hearted English critic once said that reading was not a duty, and had therefore no business to be made disagreeable; and that no man was under any obligation to read what another man wrote. This is an old-fashioned point of view, which has lost favor of late years, but which is not without compensations of its own. If the office of literature be to make glad our lives, how shall we seek the joy in store for us save by following Hazlitt's simple suggestion, and reading "with all the satisfaction in our power"? And how shall we insure this satisfaction, save by ignoring the restrictions imposed upon us, and cultivating, as far as we can, a sincere and pleasurable intercourse with our friends, the books?