As it happens, this will be—to borrow the title of the third installment of Alec Guinness’s autobiography—my “positively, final appearance,” at least as the Friday “Browsings” columnist. No doubt the SCHOLAR’s persuasive editors will occasionally inveigle me into writing a book review or article for the print magazine. In the meantime, thank you all for reading my effusions of the past year.
By this point anything else I say is bound to sound anticlimactic, and I should probably just take a bow, wave cheerio, and exit stage left. But I do have a few last thoughts to share. Let me number them, as it conveys the impression that I’ve thought systematically about all these matters.
1) To my mind, reading should be a pleasure and, through these columns, I’ve tried to pass along some of the excitement and rewards of my own bookish life. All too often the work of today’s literary journalists calls to mind a remark made by Wilfred Sheed about the once-well-known critic Irving Howe. What Sheed said, more or less, was this: When you read Irving Howe’s criticism, you can tell that he’s not doing it for fun.
I certainly hope these various essays, in their differing ways, have been fun. I’ve done my best to be amusing, silly, and sometimes a little weird. As my old friend Bill Greider, the national affairs correspondent for The Nation, once told me: Writing that isn’t fun to read usually doesn’t get read.
2) I hope that the past 50 or so columns have reminded readers that the world of books is bigger than the current best-seller list. Thirty-five years ago this spring, I was hired as an assistant editor at The Washington Book World. My ambition then, and now, has remained pretty much the same: to entice people to try unexpected books, old books, neglected books, genre books, upsetting books, downright strange books.
May I share a favorite, and famous, passage from Kafka? “The books we need are the kind that act upon us like a misfortune, that make us suffer like the death of someone we love more than ourselves, that make us feel as though we were on the verge of suicide, or lost in a forest remote from all human habitation—a book should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us.”
Once, this seemed to me to describe the sort of soul-shattering literary experiences we should always be seeking. Not so much now. For Kafka, reading, like criticism of the Irving Howe school, was something you didn’t just do for fun. It was hard work and you needed to use an ax and you probably felt exhausted afterwards and ready for some hot compresses.
There are, of course, books—great, good, and bad—that do require the last full measure of devotion. A reviewer’s lot is not always an easy one. I can remember flogging myself to finish Harold Brodkey’s The Runaway Soul, despite the novel’s consummate, unmitigated tedium. Some people—not I—have complained about Proust’s meandering sentences, Henry James’s fine distinctions, or Thomas Aquinas’s logic-chopping. Well, I say if you don’t like them, don’t read them. You’re not in school any more. Even the best mountaineers aren’t always up for an ascent of Mount Everest. Sometimes a reader just wants to spend some idle days on the Yann, or drift slowly along with Hercule Poirot as he solves some hideously complicated murder, or quietly revel in the mishaps of Bertie Wooster and Gussie Fink-Nottle.
Just remember, though: keep trying books outside your comfort zone. At least from time to time. True readers ought to be explorers.
3) Books don’t just furnish a room. A personal library is a reflection of who you are and who you want to be, of what you value and what you desire, of how much you know and how much more you’d like to know. When I was growing up, there used to be a magisterial librarian’s guide entitled Living with Books. I think that’s the right idea. Digital texts are all well and good, but books on shelves are a presence in your life. As such, they become a part of your day-to-day existence, reminding you, chastising you, calling to you. Plus, book collecting is, hands down, the greatest pastime in the world.
Well, I could go on with numbers four, five and six—whatever they might be. But I don’t want to be overly pedantic or allow this farewell to go on too long. Elizabeth Bibesco once said that a goodbye, like a welcome, shouldn’t be over-extended. “It is not the being together that it prolongs, it is the parting.”
Still, I’ve never been able to write even a note to the milkman—back when there was a milkman—without a P.S. So just let me stress, one last time, that the world is full of wonderful stories, heartbreakingly beautiful and witty poems, thrilling works of history, biography, and philosophy. They will make you laugh, or hug yourself with pleasure, or deepen your thinking, or move you as profoundly as any experience this side of a serious love affair.
None of us, of course, will ever read all the books we’d like, but we can still make a stab at it. Why deny yourself all that pleasure? So look around tonight or this weekend, see what catches your fancy on the bookshelf, at the library, or in the bookstore. Maybe try something a little unusual, a little different. And then don’t stop. Do it again, with a new book or an old author the following week. Go on—be bold, be insatiable, be restlessly, unashamedly promiscuous.