On Reading

The good people know not what time and trouble it costs to learn to read. I have been employed for eighteen years on it, and cannot say that I have reached the goal yet. --Goethe

THE STUDENT, who has no fixed place of residence, soon learns what a burden erudition is. Obligated, several times a year, to transport his entire library from one apartment to another, he develops the habit of regarding it as an object, like furniture, to be packed up, unused and unread, each summer. When autumn arrives, the volumes are unveiled again, examined, and placed on the shelves.

Since it is impossible to read all these books, shouldn't we divest ourselves of them? Why should the student, who no longer has the time to read, endure the silent indictments of those unbroken bindings, those laminated spines, whenever he enters his own room? After all, there is no obligation to be the possessor of things which have no use. Not until we learn that reading is an obsessive act, even a necessity, will we become at home in our libraries.

When did this become the case? In recent times, when the world began to lose historical coherence. All those elaborate edifices which were designed to palliate our anxieties about being in the world are now reduced to ruins. Because even the future has been thrown in doubt, our imaginations inhabit a wilderness; Baudelaire's foret de symboles has become a foret d'objets. As Delmore Schwarts observed, "It is a question of the conflict between the sensibility of the poet, the very images which he viewed as the world, and the evolving and blank and empty universe of nineteenth century science." This world has receded even more of late, so that its horizon lies somewhere between the Satanic landscape of industrial New Jersey and the now-conceivable universe above. Driving north towards New York, immense planes climbing upwards, the sky pallid, purulent, and ablaze, I realize that "Christ's blood streams in the firmament" no longer, nor, in truth, is there even a firmament at all. Like our human possibilities, the heavens have been obscured.

Before this happened, literature was capable of shoring up our intutions, expressing a condition that we remembered and identified as experience. There was no division of labor. Writers were simply known as writers, those eloquent stubborn men who lived alone and produced thousands of pages in a thin, crabbed hand. Words were so valuable, so freighted with nuance and intent, that aphorisms could be written which illustrated the world. Pascal, that ardent custodian of language, would have endorsed Mallarme's notion that "Tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir a un livre." Having discovered that all worldly activity could be dismissed as a diversion designed to evade the actual emptiness of life, he concluded that there was no real reason ever to leave one's room. Whatever there was to know could be read. Just as Calvin and Sebastian Castellio of Basen disputed the nature of redemption, just as Bruno and the Hermeticists quarreled over Phyrronism, so the theologians, the rude heretics during an earlier time conducted their speculations in sombre monasteries, in libraries where each volume had been copied out in a laborious script.


Some of these volumes are still extant, in the Bodleian, in the British Museum, in the Bibliotheque Nationale; secured with chains, too ponderous to cradle in a lap, original editions of Aquinas and Sir Thomas Browne, various Bibles and historical chronicles, lie open on high oaken tables or under glass. Their pages emanate the same subtle dust observable on the wings of a moth beneath a lamp. In the Founder's Library at New College stand row upon row of thick Latin treatises bound in ivory. And as I look through the notices in TLS of Sotheby's auctions, I discover that some of these volumes are still obtainable, at a price.

ONCE, THOUGH, the library was a domain that all European households boasted. Even such recent memoirs as those of Lytton Strachey, Lady Gregory, and Sartre, among innumerable others, remind us that the class which ownnd culture owned the talismans of culture. No prodigal child of our epoch will reminisce about the wood-panelled studies where idle afternoons were spent browsing through novels. In my own impoverished library, which comprises less than a thousand books, I have isolated the older works from those ephemera which are the luggage of all students. There is a volume of Swedenborg, issued in 1868, still damp, as if it had been left on some porch during a summer storm, and warped as the wooden floor of the Maine antique shop where I bought it; a first edition of Ruskin's Unto This Last, small as a wallet, the cardboard covers exposed like a dilapidated wall; d'Annuzio's poems (1901), elegant in a spine of maroon ribbed leather; Edmund Gosse's life of Coventry Patmore, also a first edition; Arthur Symons' London: A Book of Aspects, "privately printed for Edmund D. Brooks and his friends" in Minneapolis (1908), in which the pages remain brittle as parchment; and a Bohn's Standard Library Edition of Eckermann's Conversations of Goethe, published in 1874.

A modest collection. Still, Walter Benjamin, unpacking his library, noted that "the chance, the fate, that suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these books." And there is, embedded in such infirm companions, a subtle aura, reminiscent of the sorrow which leaps up from the pages of old photograph albums: it could be called the aesthetic composition of a moment in time, where all the properties of a retrieved past appear in the present eidetic, solemn, and ill-at-ease.

Rare books come into our hands having navigated tortuous genealogies; like our own families, their passage represents a voyage through various epochs, through cultures as disparate as Russia during the Revolution and England in the late Victorian Age. What we receive in owning them is a palpable, other existence, an existence evinced in the signatures, the dedications, and the scrawled notations in the margin which we come upon in reading. And our ownership is limited to the duration of our lives; we are simply the custodians of such volumes, which pass from us like heirlooms, some of them even enriched through use.

Others, which remain unread, serve a less concrete, though no less estimatble purpose: the well-known two-volume translation of La Recherche du Temps Perdu, issued in 1934, has been on my parents' shelves since is was published. When I reached an age where it was intolerable not to have read Proust, I appropriated this edition, and installed it in a place of prominence on my own shelves. There it was to reside until shame prompted me to take up this voluminious chore. On opening volume I. I discovered that the pages were uncut.

None of this mattered, though; because, while there is in Proust a vision of incalculable significance, there is another crucial aspect to this oeuvre, which obtains even when the two volumes are left unread. It is impossible to read Proust now without a thorough deliberation beforehand on what this novel represents. In our post-historical epoch, when the world threatens to become indecipherable, when the sheer velocity of time speeds up to such an extent that entire landscapes disappear in a season, and when jet travel no longer seems a violation of natural law, these two thousand pages require a virtual suspension of existence in order to be read. Kafka's observation that it should take a lifetime to travel from one village to another implies a universe in which even the completion of simple activities occupies a disproportionate space in our lives. This is what happens in reading Proust: the dailiness of life is repudiated. Our lives are not long enough to read that literature which once was the possession of a educated leisure class. There is too much else to do.

Still, the character of a work alters through time; it appears in successive eras as a new text, to be read and validated. Our object is to pore over this literature and revive in in our time, to deposit our sensations, which are themselves imbued with a specific social resonance, in the work. In this manner, a novel survives through time, and achieves a distinctive life in each epoch. So, if La Recherche du Temps Perdu stands neglected on the shelves, it still possesses an immense value, emblem of an irretrievable moment when such novels could be read.

SINCE READING has become such a complicated act, the serious reader's notion of literature should embrace not only those works which have been studied, but also those which haven't: Anatole France could think of reading as "the adventure of a soul among masterpieces," but the modern reader resembles more a nervous intruder, moving among volumes which once belonged in the world, and which have since become commodities. Books, of course, are still produced and distributed, more than ever before. Like all commodities, these objects reflect the mode of production which in turn determines their character. Thus, more books are published than the market is able to sustain: these become obsolete soon after their emergence; some of them are written to supply a demand which has itself been created: and literature, which excludes these conditions, circulates among a small tribe of intellectuals whose own alienation is depicted in such works.

Because the world experience mirrored in recent novels is so limited, so confined to the regions of intuition and feeling shared among a disconsolate intelligentsia, the reader is deprived of those qualities to which his addition owes its sources: qualities resembling the vision which induced a Hasidic rabbi to put on spectacles when in meditation, "for otherwise he saw all the individual things of the world as one."

To borrow a method which Balzac refined the physiological portrait, readers are known to be solipsistic, irritable, and insomniac; their version of the world is invented in sacerdotal studies where late at night, the loud voices competing about the lavish midnight supper tables described in Falubert's Sentimental Education in Balzac's Los: Illusions in Zola's Nana rise above the roar of traffic down in the street. Thin urban, and afflicted with nervous habits, the reader has to "put on spectacles" (and, with rare exceptions, defective in such natural endowments, he does wear spectacles) to reduce the blur which contemplation of the world produces. In literature there is an order which is absent elsewhere; in the poem, stanzas erect an imagined realm exclusive of chaos. The reader, whose desperate activities I've compared to those of an addict, turns to the Cantos with regret; he would rather read the measured lines of Pushkin.