Monday, May 24, 2010

A Try at "Out-Lunging" a Forgetful Posterity

Just a note here, to explain my latest little project: namely, to read aloud bits from the essays and notebooks of Samuel Butler. The idea is to try reading some of Butler's prose aloud, much as I would poetry, and by recording these excerpts and posting them on as well as this blog -- the one it seems necessary in order to do the other -- to convey something of the pleasure to be had from doing so, even should no one else be listening.

The thing about reading Samuel Butler in this way is that it is easy, not so much to do, but to find things worth doing. As with other books by great essayists, the urge to quote, and at greater length than is serviceable in just a daily note, is irresistible. There are just so many good things! But one hesitates to read out to even the best friend even the briefest passage from an essay. The reason why one may wish to share this bit or that would often as not require more context than the time it would take in the doing. Conversation can afford but so much quotation, and requires an excuse for even the lightest allusion. Meanwhile, memory, at least mine, being what it is, is never to be relied upon to get such things quite right, so that even should I find the moment to quote Butler, I will probably get him wrong and that would defeat my purpose, which after all is to put something better into the discourse than I could invent. When, exactly, might I share Butler's little note on monkeys, for example? What conversation could I slip that into? Meanwhile, having read it, why wouldn't I want to bring it to the attention of someone who might find it as amusing as I did?

And if no one cares, I at least have set myself a task I enjoy, so there's that.

The practical problem of how to read these excerpts aloud is in me. The nature of Butler's Victorian sentences can be such that my clumsy tongue tends to stumble through four or five tries before I can make sense, even to just my own ears, no matter how many times I've read and reread a particular passage. But this is a good thing. Too often the rhythms of prose, good, stout prose, festively decorated with dependent clauses and tricky sibilants and the like, can wreck the confidence of even a more studied and professional reader than I can claim to be. Such writing, even though clear enough on the page, is without the easier accents and rests of a poem. I may know what the author is saying, but that's not the same thing as being able to say what he's written. There's a challenge here then that while I may not meet it to even my satisfaction, seems well worth doing.

Finally, there is Samuel Butler himself. In taking him up again, just to read, I was struck, particularly in The Notebooks, by the aphoristic power of much he had to say, whether I agreed or disagreed with his conclusions. This is an enviable quality in a writer whose work as a novelist and essayist I already respected and enjoyed. The chance of finding such a treasure trove of discreet thoughts, so aptly and wryly put, made the idea of reading some more prose aloud here irresistible.

So, why not have a go?

For what it's worth, this little exercise is also obviously undertaken with the hope, not altogether vain I hope, of inducing at least one or two readers otherwise unacquainted with Butler that they might do well to read him for themselves. Having had The Humour of Homer & Other Essays recently reprinted for me on the bookstore's EBM, I am much involved just now in reading Butler. And sharing just a few passages from his Notebooks, inspired a beloved coworker to get a copy of that reprinted from the same source. So, who knows? Maybe the moment is right to put a little Samuel Butler back into the discussion.

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