Friday, November 09, 2007

On not reading Boswell

{Portrait of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra.}

I'm sorry, Dr. Johnson, but Boswell's Life is going to have to wait. You see, I made the mistake of opening a book that was not by Boswell yesterday, in which I read the following:
Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence, and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.
Surely you'll understand: how could I possibly not continue to read about that young lady?

Emma, by the way, takes a perfectly anti-Johnsonian approach to reading: she both makes a plan rather than reading where fancy takes her and she fails to stick to that plan. Her friend Mr. Knightley, much vexed by her for other reasons, explains:
Emma has been meaning to read more ever since she was twelve years old. I have seen a great many lists of her drawing up at various times of books that she meant to read regularly through--and good lists they were--very well chosen, and very neatly arranged--sometimes alphabetically, and sometimes by some other rule. The list she drew up when only fourteen--I remember thinking it did her judgment so much credit, that I preserved it some time; and I dare say she may have made out a very good list now. But I have done with expecting any course of steady reading from Emma. She will never submit to any thing requiring industry and patience, and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding. Where Miss Taylor failed to stimulate, I may safely affirm that Harriet Smith will do nothing. --You never could persuade her to read half so much as you wished.--You know you could not.

All of us for whom reading is a central fact of life know people like that: the ones who sincerely do mean to do some reading soon, but just haven't gotten around to it--and most likely never will. I tend to agree with Anthony Powell's narrator Nick Jenkins, who remarks in The Valley of Bones,
I was impressed for the ten thousandth time by the fact that literature illuminates life only for those to whom books are a necessity. Books are unconvertible assets, to be passed on only to those who possess them already.
As I've commented before, people are open to being given that asset at a few key points in life--childhood, high school, college--and if those opportunities are missed, there's little chance of a real love of reading developing later. And while I know there are plenty of other pleasures (and sources of knowledge) in this world, I count myself extremely fortunate to have been given books at the right age, and I feel a real sadness for the unbooked, one that I imagine is similar to what religious believers feel for those of us who are without faith.

Ah, but that's too much pessimism for a Friday morning--and who knows how it will go with Miss Emma? Perhaps she will learn a little something after all.

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