Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Reading: An Essay, by Hugh Walpole

Reading: An Essay, by Hugh Walpole (NY: Harper and Brothers, 1927).

I was delighted to read, in the shop no less, this delightful book by the popular early 20th century American novelist. Walpole shies away from offering suggested reading lists, recommending instead that one meander along an individual trail of books because:

"...I believe, with the pleasures of Reading it can be nothing if it is not autobiographical, for the only certain thing about Reading is that it is personal first, personal second, and personal all of the time, and Milton's PARADISE LOST and Dante's DIVINA COMEDIA may be the twin dominating peaks of a glorious range, but they are nothing to you whatever if you happen to be looking the other way."

*Note to self: Read Milton and Dante before people think you are illiterate.

This extended essay has so many great quotes about books to savor. Here's another:

"On looking around you it is the books that you have loved that count, not the books that you have criticised, and by that, of course, I do not mean that you should be one of those sentimental readers to whom a book is a sort of meringue; readers who wallow in books like pigs in a trough, to obtain every sort of emotion save only the intellectual one."

Walpole revels in the books he's read, starting with the childhood standouts, "Lottie's Visit to Grandmamma" and "Alice in Wonderland", (which gave him a lifelong distrust of men with drooping moustaches like the venal Walrus), doled out parsimoniously during his Victorian childhood when reading too many books (and never ANY on Sundays) was not recommended as part of a moral upbringing. He gorged on Walter Scott's historical romances during his teen years, especially during school holidays when rabid recreational reading was considered much more acceptable and the scenes he paints of settling down in cozy, thick-curtained libraries with a good book in front of a crackling fire made me swoon.

Walpole writes with an easy grace, peppered with self-deprecating comments about his own foibles in trying to stuff his head with the classics when he was young and feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of volumes he hasn't and never will read. He gives gentle criticism to the Sophisticated Readers who look down upon Readers who Read for Enjoyment, and chides the Ordinary Educated Critics who read with pen in hand to note inconsistencies in writing and later send him copious notes about his own novel's mistakes.

Other enchanting passages concern his descriptions of various libraries: The Friendliest: Morgan Library in New York City; Most Interesting: Mr. Thomas Wise's library in Hampstead (Thomas Wise the rare book forger?, yeah, that WOULD be very interesting); The Stupidest: A certain millionaire's library in an unnamed location. He touches upon the fevers of first edition collecting, having passed through it himself ("That does not mean that I would for a moment surrender the original editions that I possess; I love them all, and I think that they have a certain affection in return for me"). He advises reading lustily and sloppily.

A recommended book for any reader touched with bibliophilia.

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