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 that 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.

The Warden and Barchester Towers

After listening to Trollope’s Autobiography via Audible.com, I got a Bantam paperback edition from Nice Price Books (local used-book store) and searched on the web for any secondary reading. I ran across the Trollope-l mailing list and this site, which is an entryway to many writings, factoids, and discussions on Trollope’s novels.

And I found what I was looking for here, which archives various threads from the Trollope-l mailing list regarding specifically these two novels. (They’re usually included together as a single book.) Lots of folks on this list who loo-o-oove Trollope and have a deep level of knowledge about that period of English history. It’s interesting to see people’s reactions to Mr. Harding and Dr. Grantley and some of the scenes that just don’t come off (such as the party at Harding’s home).

After the ups and downs of the last few months, it’s good to settle into a book that has a rather stately pace and isn’t huffing and puffing for effect or cheap thrills. Not to say it isn’t melodramatic. But there’s a charm to it that’s undeniable. The last novel I read before this was Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, which was so good it kind of ruined me for novel-reading for a week or two, as I was reluctant to let that world go. I’ve only been affected a few times like that — Lee Smith’s Oral History was another book that scoured out my insides and left me ruined for about two weeks, before I felt I could pick up another novel.

Monthly splurge list

I copied this tip from some money-management page online:

Impulse purchases are always the things that trip up our budgets and cause us to overspend. You may not be able to avoid impulse purchases all the time, but you can limit them by rewarding yourself each month with something that you really want. Decide on something that you really want each month. When the impulse hits you to spend, ask yourself do I want this impulse item more than I want my designated reward. If the answer is no, set aside that money for your monthly reward. The reward should be something that you consider a real luxury or frivolous item. While it does not need to be expensive, it should be somewhat whimsical so that you feel that you have indeed rewarded yourself.

After having this squib in my Yahoo Notepad for a couple of years, I think, I finally figured out how to implement it. In my Clie’s Memopad “Lists” category, I have a memo titled (ta-da) “Splurges.”

In this memo, I list each month’s name. Then, under each month, I list one or two splurge items I’m interested in. But, I also use this list to record my impulse buys and splurges I make throughout the month. I was quietly shocked at how many little items I bought for myself in February; none of them individually expensive, but taken en masse, most disquieting. I think when I’m busy, I have less time to shop and spend.

In any case, when I look at this list during my GTD weekly review, or when I’m hit with the urge to treat myself to something, I am naturally moved to consider my spending habits.

New Vocabulary

Some of the words Liz and I have invented because there was a need:

  • “flustrated” - of course, a portmanteau word combining flustered and frustrated. A needful word I use in the kitchen when nothing seems to be going right, pots are boiling over, the smoke alarm is going off, and I grow flustrated and babbling with every passing second.
  • “irrationale” - a perfectly reasonable explanation for doing something stupid. Example: “My irrationale for eating the cookies was that I was celebrating my weight loss goals.”
  • “non sequiturd” - when I make a Zippy the Pinhead reply to something Liz says, but that is particularly stupid or sarcastic or obnoxious, to boot.

On Arnold Bennett

This blog’s subtitle, “Oddments of High Unimportance,” comes from Arnold Bennett’s journal entry for 23-July-1907:

In the afternoon I seemed to do nothing but oddments of high unimportance.


I went on a Bennett binge last year. I suppose I first became aware of him through posts on Zhurnalwiki, the proprietor of which has several admiring pages devoted to Bennett’s writings on stoicism and what Bennett called (in one of his essay collections) “Mental Efficiency.” And in fact it’s in his essays of self-help (which ran originally as a series of newspaper articles) that I first made my acquaintance with him.

You can find more on Bennett and his work with just a little research or reading some of his works online, but here’s the potted history:

  • Born 1867 in the Potteries district of England; primarily industrial, working-class, a family of genteel poverty and not always pleasant relations with his immediate family.
  • Eventually becomes a journalist and through sheer hard work, remakes himself as a literary man who lived by his pen.
  • Writes novels, short stories, plays, book reviews, literary journalism, “self-help” articles, and even headed England’s war propaganda dept in WWI, for a time.
  • His most famous novel, and the one that made his name, was The Old Wives Tale.
  • He wrote too much, really. The “peanut butter” school of energy management says that when you spread the peanut butter too thin, it loses its flavor. Likewise, the more he wrote, particularly fiction, the more thin and less interesting his material became. His style of novel-writing slowly antiqued under his fingers.
  • As he grew more successful and rich (and despised by the younger literary elite for his success, money, and “old-fashioned” writing style) he grew more distanced from the material that really fed his fiction. Still, late in his life, he wrote Riceyman Steps, a study of a miserly bookstore owner, which surprised the literary world and rejuvenated him for a bit. The old dog still had a few tricks left in him. (I read “Riceyman” last year; some quite unbelievable moments, but good details here and there and a few mind-popping scenes, as when the miser has to decide whether to give a charity a few dollars in his hand, and look beneficent in front of his new wife, or hold on to those few dollars for dear life.)
  • He was a director of the Savoy Hotel, whose chef named an omelette for him.
  • Along the way, Bennett republished as books collections of articles on what he called his “pocket philosophies”: self-help, mainly, on staying calm in the storm, not working so hard against yourself, keeping an even keel, and so on. He was a Stoic and extolled Epictetus and Aurielius. These were mainly collections of articles he’d written and were read by many lower- and middle-class people who didn’t read or know about his fiction. (These articles were published as series in newspapers but under anonymous byline, I think.) Selections include How to Live on 24 Hours a Day and The Human Machine.
  • If you riffle through Margaret Drabble’s biography of AB, you’ll soon see that his philosophies were harder to live by than to package and sell. He made a disastrous first marriage (she never granted him a divorce), and in his second relationship, left his companion and their daughter almost paupers.
  • He was of that generation which the new literary lions, i.e., The Bloomsbury Group, despised. He and Virginia Woolf crossed swords in a series of book reviews, and Woolf dealt AB’s reputation a death blow in her essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.” Though they met later at parties and seemed to get on well (her epitaph of Bennett in her diary is touching), her essay lived on and stamped his literary reputation for decades.
  • When he was dying of typhoid in 1931, Scotland Yard put straw on the streets outside his residence to dampen the sound of carts and vehicles. He was the last “great man” for whom this was done.
  • Not long after his death, the Depression and changing literary fashion made AB forgotten within a matter of only a few years.
  • His books (the major ones anyway) were still read for decades after, but he’s regarded nowadays as one of those bestselling authors of yesteryear whose books are unreadable today.
Some of his nonfiction essays on travel, theater, art, politics, etc., were collected in privately circulated books that he gave to friends at Christmas, and are by and large quite readable, I think. He tends to lead the reader by the hand quite a lot, but his prose is clear and he links his ideas so that anyone can understand them. This is probably why he sold so many of the pocket philosophies. I found his travel writings a little boring after a while and the essays on the current state of politics or theatrical management less than interesting. But when he got on to writing about literature or art, my interest revived and he was a most congenial companion.

In addition to all the other writing he did, he also kept a journal off and on (mostly on) from 1896 to his death. Local used bookshops in our area have several copies of this, and I’ve been dipping into it as my breakfast-table reading. I imagine it would make nice bedtime reading also, as it’s eminently pick-uppable and put-downnable. He also seems, from the writing, a genuinely nice and sensible man, with a generous nature, a tart sense of humor, disdainful of stupid and unthinking behavior, solid opinions but with the ability to change his mind, and it’s quite nice to spend a few minutes with him.

I’ll post various quotes of his that I’ve copied from his essays or journal, from time to time.

Here’s one to go out with:


In front, on a little hill in the vast valley, was spread out the Indian-red architecture of Bursley - tall chimneys and rounded ovens, schools, the new scarlet market, the high spire of the evangelical church……the crimson chapels, and rows of little red houses with amber chimney pots, and the gold angel of the Town Hall topping the whole. The sedate reddish browns and reds of the composition all netted in flowing scarves of smoke, harmonised exquisitely with the chill blues of the chequered sky. Beauty was achieved, and none saw it.
Clayhanger (1910)


Addendum: A shortish bio of Bennett by his friend Frank Swinnerton is here.

I fell into a brown study

From “The Resident Patient” by Arthur Conan Doyle:

Finding that Holmes was too absorbed for conversation, I had tossed aside the barren paper, and leaning back in my chair, I fell into a brown study.

World Wide Words helpfully provides an etymology for the phrase “brown study.”

For reasons known not even to myself, I’ve chosen it or forms of it for my online moniker since the early 2000s.

(originally written 01 Jan 2005, revised for micro.blog)