Monday, February 20, 2017

"On Reading"

Sydney M. Williams

Essays from Essex
“On Reading”
February 20, 2017

The more you read, the more things you will know.
The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
                                                                                                Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel, 1904-1991)
                                                                                                I Can Read with My Eyes Shut

With eyes focused on the ceiling, having been accused that what he had drunk could fill half the room, Winston Churchill allegedly retorted, “so much to do, so little time.” Readers, looking at shelves of unread books, feel the same way.

Between five and ten million books have been published in my lifetime. A reasonable estimate for the number of books published before I was born would be another million, including, of course, the Bible and most of what we consider the classics: Homer, Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Austen, the Bronte sisters, Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Orwell, Wodehouse, Tolstoy[1], Dostoevsky, Melville, Hawthorne, Twain, Alcott – an array of literature that would be virtually impossible for the average person to read in a lifetime – and which would leave no time for modern fiction, poetry, essays, histories and biographies. Thoreau once wrote, apropos of the myriad choices we are given, “Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.” P.J. O’Rourke saw humor in the problem: “Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.

A fast reader might plow through 100 books a year. (I usually read between thirty-five and forty.) But, let’s assume a man or woman in their 80s read fifty books a year for 70 years. That would mean a lifetime of reading would consume 3,500 books. I am told, in this day when books come off presses like rabbits, that about 250,000 books are published each year in the U.S., with another 700,000 self-published. This trend is not new. Over a century ago Oscar Wilde, placing wit to words, wrote, “In old days, books were written by men of letters and read by the public. Nowadays, books are written by the public and read by nobody. Most books, like old soldiers, do fade away, leaving not even a small indentation on the mind of the reading public. My brother Willard, who owns the Toadstool, tells me that perhaps a hundred or so books make the New York Times best seller list every year; even then, many are bought to be displayed, not read. We are reminded of Churchill’s comments on drinking: So much to read, so little time! But such concerns should not dissuade the reader.

Like many, my interests exceed my abilities. Books are purchased with greater rapidity than can be read. So the decision of which book to read is difficult. (Keep in mind, I am only capable of reading about 0.0035% of the books published each year, and that assumes I read nothing that was published in past years.) C.S. Lewis admonished us: “It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one [until] you have read an old one in between.” Wise advice, in my opinion.

In general, I prefer dead writers of fiction and live writers of history and biography. Don’t ask me why. I just do. Of course there are exceptions, like my very much alive daughter-in-law, New York Times best-selling author Beatriz Williams. Besides raising four children and keeping her husband in check, she writes three books a year. As to whether the writer is alive or dead, I am indifferent when it comes to essays. I like the deceased Michel de Montaigne, E. B. White and Christopher Hitchens, as well as the living (but getting older) Joseph Epstein and Willard Spiegelman. I don’t read much poetry, as I am untutored in the subject. And I have an aversion to those who skillfully (though not subtly) impose their political preferences on an unwitting reader, like Bill O’Reilly and Doris Kearns Goodwin.

I always find it amusing that authors, when interviewed for the Sunday New York Times Book Review, mention that their bedside tables hold a half-dozen books. Mine has a dozen, ranging from Earning the Rockies, by Robert Kaplan to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. There are another thirty sitting on my desk waiting to be picked up: Kafka’s The Castle and Christopher Hitchens’ And Yet square off against Grit and A World in Disarray, by Angela Duckworth and Richard Haass respectively. While not assigning anthropomorphic qualities to books, I nevertheless believe that each fights for attention.

Sometimes a book jumps to the head of the line. That happened recently when my brother Frank suggested Sugar in the Blood by Andrea Stuart – a history of Ms. Stuart’s mixed-race heritage, in which she traces her roots back 400 years, to both owners and slaves on a Barbados sugar plantation.

As one ages, time rushes by. Like most, my reading is not confined to books. Because of my weekly essays (mistitled as Thoughts of the Day), I stay current on news; so it’s five newspapers a day. (If there were one paper that was truly unbiased my job would be simpler!) I also get sent essays and articles, most of which I peruse. And I try to stay reasonably up-to-date regarding two not-for-profit boards on which I serve. Besides, I have a wife, three children with spouses and ten grandchildren, all of whom I love and deserve more attention than I give them. There are other distractions: crossword puzzles; lunches and dinners with friends; and the woods near our new home which beckon; I find walking through them provides a modicum of exercise and clears up unwanted but ever-present, mind-numbing cobwebs. Unfortunately, I need eight hours of sleep. So time is short. What gets omitted is television and, to my wife’s dismay, movies. As for the latter, I periodically succumb and am almost always glad when I do.

One should always have a horde of easy-reading books, to read when not feeling well – like comfort food, only for the mind. In that category, I place the aforementioned Wodehouse, along with mysteries by Rex Stout, Agatha Christie, Beverly Nichols and two or three local writers of mysteries (local to this part of Connecticut): David Handler, James Benn and a woman whose husband I recently met, Ann Blair Kloman. The latter’s heroine is nice little old lady, Isobel, who, in order to live the life to which she was accustomed before her husband died, has become a contract killer…but only to put away those who are truly evil!

Even though my shelf space, since moving, has shrunk, it is books made with paper that attract me. I have tried electronic books, and I know that for many they are critical. For some, it is the ability to adjust the print size; for others, it is the convenience of carrying a library on a tabloid. But I like the feel of a book and the turning of pages. In recent years, I have taken to paperbacks, as I find my ability to recall is better when I underline particular passages. Remembering what one has read is therapeutic. I recall when my grandmother could no longer read, she used to recite poetry, poems she had learned as a young girl.

Reading is individual and endlessly educational. The late critic Edmund Wilson wrote, “No two persons ever read the same book.” He’s right. A reader inevitably places what he reads in a context with which he (or she) is familiar. Dr. Seuss saw the wisdom in reading. It is not just for entertainment – though that is important – but to get understanding: “The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”




[1] P.G. Wodehouse, of course, published his last book in 1974, a year before he died. He poked fun at himself and at Russian novelists. In his 1922 collection of ten golfing stories, The Clicking of Cuthbert, he writes of a fictional Russian writer, Brasiloff, who “…specialized in grey studies of hopeless misery…” Brasiloff is quoted: “No novelists anywhere any good except me. P.G. Wodehouse and Tolstoy not bad. Not good, but not bad.”

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