When will I read The Trumpet Major? I was given a broken set of Hardy when we started buying used books at the store I work at now. An older fellow came to the desk -- actually it was just a folding table then -- and sold us some lovely old books that had belonged to his parents. No one had read the books since their owners had died, years before. I explained the value of what was brought, bought what I thought I could sell, and told him to take a few of the really rare and valuable books to a reputable antiquarian. The rest: the broken sets, the broken books, the old books in Swedish, he had no interest in taking back. I suggested he might donate these to the public library's annual book sale, but instead, he said, "Keep what you want and just throw the rest away." Then he left.
We don't accept donations at the store. We can't. The labour involved would be prohibitive. Before we started buying for the store, we had Powell's in to buy for a week. It was very successful, people came from all over to sell their books to the famous Portland dealers. The only problem for us was after. Powell's let people abandon what they didn't buy and then we arranged for these books to be donated locally. The good people from the library sale sent a seventy year old man with an economy Toyota pick-up to collect, roughly sixty boxes of books. It took a very long time to find anyone willing to take the lot. Eventually St. Vincent de Paul sent a truck, but we had to load the stuff, etc. It was a bit of a nightmare. After that, no donations, no recycle. You bring us books, you take back what you do not sell.
We've had a donation box set up now and again by a campus organization that donates textbooks overseas, but for the most part we've stuck to our rule.
I thought about trying to sell the abandoned Hardy, but finally I just set a price on them and then bought them and brought them home. The books are prettier on the shelf than they are easy to read. The print is a little insufferable and close and the text drifts, first to the left then to the right, up to one corner and then, pages later, down. Carelessly made, those books. And as they are so old, they are a little delicate as well. But I have then a copy of The Trumpet Major on my shelf, in quarter leather, but almost too fragile to read. When will I read that book?
Someone asked me today, "What don't you read?" The question was flattering, as I knew he didn't mean Tom Clancy or the racing form. He is reading George Meredith's The Egoist, or trying, and yes, I've read that. It was a long time ago that I did, and I don't remembering having any urge since to read the book again. So, to at least to answer my coworker's question in part, I suppose I don't read Meredith now, just as I haven't read that Hardy. Discussing Meredith today, briefly, and for my part, vaguely, I do wonder why I did read that novel when I did. Was it because of Meredith's biographer, Siegfried Sassoon? I read everything of his I could lay hands on once, including, I believe, said biography of the elder writer. I can see I still own that book, and Meredith's as well.
Meredith is a curious case. Unlike Stevenson, whose style was likewise raved about by contemporaries, though obviously for very different reasons, Meredith seems to have been read by few living and not much read, beyond one or two novels, even by the few who still know the name. Why is that? Is he really any more difficult than James? Evidently Meredith is no more likely than Stevenson to be taught in schools, though perhaps he is in his native country. Unlike Stevenson of course, I know Meredith never wrote popular novels or books that were appropriately exciting to the kiddies. So what happened to him?
There was a time, before the turn of the 20th Century, when George Meredith, (February 12, 1828 – May 18, 1909,) who'd always been something of an acquired taste for the general public, was if not popular, much celebrated. As Sassoon wrote, "From the first, he had written for an audience of the élite, and by the time he was fifty his novels had won strong support from that audience." That means, by my rough calculations, for roughly thirty years, again as Sassoon put it, "The intellectual vogue of his novels was an indisputable fact." That is impressive enough, I should think, for any novelist, but Meredith's reputation survived him for at least another forty years -- Sassoon's biography being published successfully in 1948. Unlike the majority of the novelists writing only so long ago even as Sassoon, how many still have, as Meredith does, titles in print?
So why haven't I reread Meredith? I read two novels, as I remember, both probably at least twenty five years ago. Tonight I reread a bit of Sassoon's biography, and from that I'd have to say, Meredith sounds very much my cup. So... should I? Will I?
I can only say, I may. I am encouraged by the interest of my young and clever coworker. If Meredith is good enough for so good a reader as him, then maybe I've been foolish to neglect George Meredith all these years. But I make no promises. What I don't read, even among the books I once did, particularly among the books I own, is by far the larger part of my library, but then, as I've suggested before, a personal library, if one has the space for it, is as much a matter of anticipation as it is necessity. Owning books unread is proof against mortality, if nothing else.
So then, to answer my young friend's question more generally and honestly, what don't I read? More even than I did read when I was his age.
But I might yet.