The Limits of Reading

Anthony Lane, in an excellent appraisal of PG Wodehouse in The New Yorker (April 19 & 26, 2004 - not online), includes this quote from Marcel Proust:

Reading becomes dangerous when instead of waking us to the personal life of the spirit, it tends to substitute itself for it, when truth no longer appears to us as an ideal we can realize only through the intimate progress of our thought and the effort of our heart, but as a material thing, deposited between the leaves of books like honey ready-made by others, and which we have only to take the trouble of reaching for on the shelves of the libraries and then savoring passively in perfect repose of body and mind.

Lane, who loves Wodehouse in precisely measured doses, draws a good dividing line between artists of the first and second ranks (there are further ranks, of course). An artist of the first rank creates a world with clear and real correspondences to our world–“who returns us with a vengeance to our own travails.” I think of Chekhov’s stories of peasant and middle-class life, which, though they occur in a place and time so different from ours as to seem another world, resonate with the life I see around me every day.

An artist of the second rank, such as Wodehouse, Doyle, Tolkien, instead create a “complete alternative world, fully furnished and ready for occupation.” The worlds of Sherlock Holmes, Hobbits, and Bertram Wilberforce Wooster (and dare I say, “Star Trek”?) offer cozy cubbies to curl into, and there is real pleasure in that. I never want to give up those worlds.

Without denying Wodehouse’s mastery, Lane uses Proust’s quote to turn his essay to what happens when we stay too long in those worlds, as Wodehouse did and as Lane’s Uncle Eric did. Lane describes in his article how his Uncle Eric had two complete Wodehouse collections, one for upstairs, one for downstairs, all heavily annotated by himself in pencil. When he needed to look up a reference, I guess he needed to do it immediately. Uncle Eric never married and though he led a busy life, it ended rather narrowly, as a bit of a genteel hermit, without many friends apart from distant family.

A few quotes from Lane’s piece:

…When you fall afoul of the real world, your exploration of the unreal will grow ever more quizzical and devout. Comedy is still our least bestial way of admonishing the wreckage of our lives–no animal has ever laughed–but too much comedy, or nothing but comedy, has a subtle, feline habit of pushing our lives so far away from us that they cease, as if in a dream, to be our responsibility…The journey that is charted in Uncle Eric’s Wodehouse collection, in the self-persuading chatter of his annotations, is a journey away from the great things–from the predations of love and war–into the wavelike soothings of the small.

…Like many of us, [Uncle Eric] wanted the good life, or, failing that, the quiet life, and he found tht it was most readily available between hard covers….There are times when the quest for good, or the belief that the good and quiet life are all that matters, can shrivel into a minor kind of evil–when the desire to be innocent, unfoxed by the dust and dirt of relationahips, and unscraped by the presence of people very different from ourselves, can dwindle into the loneliness of the bigot. We have to give a damn.