Wednesday, October 14, 2009

My Sentiments Exactly

My friend and I reread a book together while he was up here for a visit. We've done this a few times over the years, with varying success, but always with great initial enthusiasm and never to any result less than good. We've tried a variety of titles since our first, I think, Emma, which we read on a trip together to the Russian River, in California, many years ago. Some books he's finished, and I haven't. Some I've read straight through and he didn't. Hardly the point of the exercise, really. The best of it has been having a book between us, to which we might, for a time, return whenever we wished, to discuss or not as our conversation carried us, and in knowing that the other was off somewhere, in the house, or far off, turning the same pages, laughing at the same scene, noting some felicity to quote to the other later, or thinking of a question from the text to ask the other when we spoke of the book again. Reading a novel, at least once one has left school, is largely a solitary pursuit, but it can be a means by which to know, or know better, not only the author but other readers, even or specially old friends. In my first book club now for just shy of a year, I've had the chance to appreciate the strangers' opinions of favorite books of mine, and that has been most interesting, and a most pleasant challenge: to many of my own preconceptions, to my memory, and to my ability to contribute something to a general discussion with a diverse collection of readers, young, old, men and women, whose reading and experience has often been very unlike my own. It has been an education for me, reading to a purpose other than to please myself, or to simply talk about a book with a friend, and something of a welcome communion; to meet regularly faces familiar and new, and books likewise.

At my work, I talk about books throughout the day, but seldom at any length or to any purpose other than to recommend and or to sell them. But, as evidenced already by this writing, if nowhere else, it is not enough. Books, unlike the visual or performing arts, can only be shared among the community of common readers, each reading on his or her own, and brought together not so much by an experience remembered together, or apportioned like a task in a classroom, but by mutual interest in a specific work, admiration of an author, sympathy with a philosophy or theme, in short, by a choice to know another person better by what that person's read. I may like the same movies as someone I may not like at all. I may stand in a museum, next to a maniac or a fool, and admire the same painting. I may listen to music in a concert hall and tap my foot in time with a stranger who remains a stranger thereafter. But to have read the same books, or better, to be reading the same book as the person next to me on the bus, or unknown to me, on a bus in Bangalore, is to be, already in a conversation with the book's author and if unknowingly, with any and all the other readers of that book. Discussing books then is to join in a conversation already started.

A few years ago, I noticed a handsome little man, of college age, every day reading further through a great, fat Penguin paperback. I couldn't make out the title and finally asked him what it was. Shyly, he turned the cover to me and I saw that he was reading Richardson's Clarissa. I expressed my sympathy. He averred it wasn't a bad book, though he would never have read it but for having been required to do so for a class in English literature. When I asked if he at least was to read Fielding after, he admitted his innocence of Tom Jones. And there our converse ended. I could not however stop thinking about the boy reading that ponderous big book and not knowing that Henry Fielding existed. Finding a handsome, inexpensive copy of Fielding's novel in a used bookstore shortly after my exchange with the boy at the bus-stop, I bought and carried it in my bag for some days, until I chanced to see the boy again and gave it to him, both of us blushing, him from shyness and me from brass, telling him it was his reward for having read the Richardson. He thanked me for it, with a charming confusion, and we never spoke again.

Briefly set free from other commitments by my vacation, and before beginning the book my friend and I were to read together, I took up a fine old copy of Fielding's Joseph Andrews and read what I assumed would be but a few pages of it, just to amuse an hour or two. I read quite a bit more before my friend arrived, and I've finished it since he left. Bagehot called Fielding "a reckless enjoyer," in that he saw the good in everything, high and low, and communicated "this elemental energy of keen delight" in all he wrote. I turned to Fielding then in need of just such an infusion of delight, and found it. That was what I hoped to give the boy at the bus-stop. It is no bad thing, I suppose, to read Richardson in a class on the novel. To read Fielding though is to experience something of the fun it is to be human, to have senses, to drink and eat and fuck, to be a fool, be made wiser, and to laugh, forgivingly, at the folly of of the whole species. Byron called him "the prose Homer of human nature," and whatever his shortcomings as a novelist for the modern reader, just as for the Victorians who insisted on his shortcomings as a moralist, Fielding is a delight still and will be so long as people read English novels.

I hope that boy at the bus-stop read the book I gave him, so that wherever he is now, we might have that at least in common here after -- delight. And should we chance to meet again, and should he now know Tom Jones, I'd like to know what that boy thought of him. We might yet meet as friends, if he liked the book. Samuel Richardson would not be enough to that purpose. Fielding would.

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