Books: Latest Readings — Introduction |
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Latest Readings : Introduction

WHEN I EMERGED from hospital in early 2010 with a certificate to say that I had a case of leukemia to go with my wrecked lungs, I could hear the clock ticking, and I wondered whether it was worth reading anything both new and substantial, or even rereading something substantial that I already knew about. Poetry, yes: I was putting the finishing touches to my Poetry Notebook, and there were still some more notes demanding to be added. But even the slightest book of prose looked like a big thing that I might not have time to get through. The cure for that attitude was Boswell’s Life of Johnson. After reading the whole masterpiece with delight—I had read bits of it before, but I could now see that it needs to be taken complete—I resolved to get back to Johnson himself later.

In view of the fact that I was once again on my feet, instead of flat on my back, the concept of “later” suddenly seemed less quixotic than realistic. If you don’t know the exact moment when the lights will go out, you might as well read until they do. My family’s plans for my remaining years of existence included extracting me from my place of work in London and installing my library in a house of its own in Cambridge. In this house I would live, read, and perhaps even write. The move took what seemed like years. About half my books had to be sold off just to create some breathing space. What was left filled the specially built shelves to the limit. I made a vow to myself and all concerned that my book-buying days were over. But with the renewed urge to read, I found, came a renewed urge to buy. In recent years the number of secondhand bookshops in Cambridge has been drastically reduced. Most of the trade has moved online. But the Oxfam shops, somehow free from the killingly high levels of rent, were still worth visiting on those occasions when I could summon the strength to limp the half-mile into town. And always, in the Market Square, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, there was Hugh’s bookstall, known to its devotees both literary and academic as one of the great bookstalls on earth.

As the laid-out stock is sold off during the day, the gaps are filled with yet more books from Hugh’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of substantial hardbacks and paperbacks. Hugh doesn’t say much, but those in the know tell me that he scores all this mouthwatering stuff at car boot sales. I suppose that the original owners of the books have died off, and their families have put the books back into the economy in the simplest way possible. As I was scheduled to die off myself, even if I did not precisely know when, it was madness to start making small piles of books on Hugh’s stall that I wanted to take home. But the madness was divine. Even if I already had the book, he might have a handier edition; and often they were titles that I had once owned but lost along the way; and most often of all they were books that I had never owned before but now realized I ought to possess. Somewhere in there was an itching sense of duty. The childish urge to understand everything doesn’t necessarily fade when the time approaches for you to do the most adult thing of all: vanish.

But these and similar philosophical principles will be treated from time to time throughout this volume. Finally you get to the age when a book’s power to make you think becomes the first thing you notice about it. You can practically sense that power when you pick the book up. The books I already had in the house presumably once generated the same sort of charge when I contemplated buying them. Now there they were, still in their thousands despite the recent winnowing. I roamed slowly among them: old purchases begging to be read again even as the new purchases came in at the rate of one plastic shopping bag full every week. Insanity, insanity. Or, as Johnson might have said, vanity, vanity.

Johnson, who often convicted himself of indolence, might possibly have approved my plan for the organization of this volume: there isn’t one. It just sort of happened, and for several years I had been occupied with what might well have been my last readings before Yale kindly got the idea of asking me to compose a little book about whatever books I had been reading lately. Even after the request came, I went on reading in no particular order, mixing books of obvious seriousness with books of seeming triviality; as I always have, in the belief that culture is a matter not of credentials, but only of intensity, and sometimes you will find things out from fans and buffs that you won’t from a tenured professor. Thus there were heavy books about Washington that taught me about American politics, but also featherweight books about Hollywood that taught me about American cultural imperialism: which is, after all, the branch of American global dominance that actually works, however much the rest of us might fret.

I also mixed books I had read before with books I ought not to have neglected. The second category, I found, tended to absorb the first; because if I had first read a book long enough ago, it seemed brand new when I came to it again. I suppose the big find, among those books truly new to me, was Olivia Manning’s set of two trilogies; and the shock of pleasure that her writings delivered to me is recorded here with due prominence. But it was almost as much of a revelation, after more than fifty years, to rediscover Joseph Conrad. My reconquista of his works is spread throughout this book because that was the way it happened: I didn’t revisit his major novels in a bunch, I tried to space them out, mainly because I was trying to stop. Time felt precious and I would have preferred to spend less of it with him, but he wouldn’t let me go.

I might say the same of Ernest Hemingway; and at this point I really did have a dramatic order in mind while I wrote my text; I wanted him young and infinitely promising in my overture, and disintegrating in my finale. It seemed fair. Much of the damage that led to his terrible end he had inflicted on himself. And he seemed such a conspicuous example of how the gift of life, and the gift of talent, can be abused. Perhaps I was becoming Puritanical in my old age—dotards often do—but I disapproved of his recklessness, while attempting to register the undoubted fact that I would not have disapproved so much if he had not been such a mighty figure. He haunts this book, as Dr. Johnson does. But so do they all, the writers. Piled up, the books they wrote are not a necropolis. They are an arcadian pavilion with an infinite set of glittering, mirrored doorways to the unknown: which seems dark to us only because we will not be in it. We won’t be taking our knowledge any further, but it brought us this far.