Sunday, March 6, 2011

Always Modern

When my obligations to committee work finally ended a few months ago, I determined to read again just as I might like, without any thought of utility, or intention of necessarily even writing here about every book I might read. I might post a quote or two, as I went, or mention what I'd read, but I needn't see each book as requiring either an opinion or any other record of the experience, beyond whatever notes I might habitually make as I read. For three years, a third or more of the books I read, I was obliged to. It had been years since I'd had to read in this way. I served on a regional bookseller's prize committee, and did so happily enough, but, as my service went on, and for all the good things I read that I might never have read otherwise, I chafed at reading so much inferior stuff: bad novels, thin poetry, treacly children's books, unspeakably earnest memoirs from every manner of gardener, hiker and herb-eating-dullard, dull science, and duller local history. The best of what I was required to read came in unpredictable sun-breaks, as we rather endearingly call cloudless moments here in the Northwest, but the rest came, it sometimes seemed, as "the rain was upon the earth" in Genesis.

When I was working in a GLBTQ bookstore in California, I took it upon myself to review and recommend six new titles a month -- at least three for women readers. No one who hasn't tried to find three good new lesbian books a month to read can really appreciate the thanklessness of such a task. Let me just say that the loyalty of the lesbian community to that store and to their writers and publishers was not always rewarded. (If I never read another sexual flower metaphor, it will be too soon.)

My liberation, to read just as I pleased, predictably took me first to unfinished classics by familiar names, so that I feasted on Balzac and Zola, Robert Graves and Graham Greene, and yes, even some pop trash, like movie star biographies and the like, but again of my own choosing and therefore requiring no explanation to nobody. Heaven. An ongoing fascination with letters as a literary form took me to poets like Gray & Cowper, and then to Edward Fitzgerald, first in two volumes, and then in four. That last led me to reading George Crabbe, and there I've largely been since; reading his stories in verse, and a bit of Wordsworth's The Prelude, all but uninterrupted by anything other than periodicals, television, and snatches of Dickens for a couple of weeks now. Having finally come to the end of my Crabbe feast, and to cleanse my palate, as it were, I've turned to narrative history.

Someone who served on that prize committee with me, stopped by my desk the other day and we got to talking -- naturally -- about books. We briefly discussed Franzen, and a few other big names on the scene, and then she said the most extraordinary thing. She told me that she never reads anything, fiction or otherwise, by dead authors. "You never read anything but," she said, smiling. An exaggeration, obviously, but such, it seems, is my reputation nowadays. I get that. What I don't get is how anyone with even a passing interest in literature could read only books by their contemporaries. Being in the business of selling new books would excuse a preference for new books, as new books tend still to be the business most of us fancy we are in -- for the moment. One likes to keep abreast. Of the new books I do read, most I read for this very reason; because of the buzz, the press, the interest, such as it is, from the public. I don't say that I finish most of the new books I start. I don't say that I read anywhere near the number of new books that are read by most of my colleagues at the bookstore. I work with people who read two and three new novels in a week. I don't read much in the way of contemporary politics, or current events, at least as books. My opinion is formed from newspapers and periodicals that I trust, from my own observation of the news, from the conversation and experience of friends, and seldom seems to require the reinforcement or challenge of a journalist or expert at book-length. Only in science does the new have any automatic interest for me -- when I can understand it. As another forgotten writer, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, once said, "In science, read, by preference, the newest works; in literature, the oldest. The classic literature is always modern." I could go on, but it is enough to say that I like to think I am not unaware of either the world in which we live, or the literature that is being written. I am by no means an antiquary. I do not practice an amateur scholasticism that refuses what might be valuable or good simply because it is not old, but neither do I put much value in anything just because it is, or appears to be, new. The notion -- for it certainly does not rise to the level of an idea, or a principle, -- that any book is good or bad because the man or woman who wrote it is either living or dead, is absurd. Tacitus, by virtue of his superior intelligence and the brilliance of his narrative, is just as likely to have said something that speaks directly to the current state of the world as is Christopher Hitchens or Tariq Ali. To discount or avoid the novels of Charles Dickens, or the essays of William Hazlitt, because their language may seem, to the new reader in this century somehow antique, is to deny not only the judgement of history, but to deny oneself some of the richest satisfactions of reading English, for want of a willingness to experience a few unfamiliar words, or read at a pace slower than that required to take in the caption on a cartoon. Anyone who reads only what or just as they did in youth ever thereafter, isn't reading any more, so much as reading themselves to sleep. I couldn't appreciate Austen until I was thirty. I couldn't read Beckett until I'd seen the back of forty. There are writers I will probably never come to, but not because of any deficiency in in them, or lack of time in my own brief life, but simply because no other book led me on to theirs. Such appreciation as I have for a novelist like Jonathan Franzen is the direct result of having read Dickens, and Aldous Huxley. I don't understand how one reads otherwise, unless it is just to do something inoffensive and pleasant, like knitting, rather than doing nothing. As a reader, I am many things, but not a hobbyist.

And if I am a snob, in any sense, and I suppose in this one way I am, it is in my preference for what is written well rather than what was written either recently or most persuasively, according to my politics, my opinions or those of my friends. When I've had enough of rhyme and invention, I want history, but as with poetry and fiction, so with fact: it matters more to me that what I read is good literature than that it reflects current scholarship or that it follows any theory.

For me, it starts with Macaulay. His History of England to the Death of William III, while not the first long work of history I read, was perhaps the first I read, as an adult, not so much from curiosity about the period or the place, though I had some of both, but because of the masterful way in which the book was written. It was a book I'd read about, here and there, for years before I read it. It was an important book, in it's time, and an influential book for some generations thereafter. As celebrated as it, and Macaulay's Miscellaneous Essays, consisting of both history and literary criticism, were in their day, even in the author's short lifetime, there was no shortage of criticism of both his style and his scholarship. Amusingly enough, even if his name is never mentioned nowadays in books of history of the period with which he was most concerned -- namely the fall of the house of the Stuarts and the rise of the English Constitution -- much of the history I've subsequently read would seem to be written in reaction against what Macaulay is accused of having done in his. No one can question his achievement, in having marshaled so much information that until his writing had never been fully examined, let alone fully utilized by historians, and no one, much more importantly to me, to this day, can say that what he made of this was not a masterpiece of English. If nothing else, the opening of Macaulay's History, and the descriptions, however prejudiced others may since have judged them to be, of the Kings Charles, first and second, of James the Second fleeing into exile, of Judge Jeffreys of the "Bloody Assizes," of the author's unlikely hero, William of Orange, are among the most memorable and justly celebrated in the literature of English history. Macaulay may have been a politician, and a Whig with a very particular point to be made in writing his History as he did, he may well be every bit as stodgy, inflexible and respectable as he came to be seen by subsequent generations of writers, but the relevance of any of that to me, as a reader of historical literature, while not unaware of the justice of these complaints, was none the less nearly nil. It was in reading Macaulay that I first recognized in myself the capacity to appreciate the historian as an artist in preference to the interest of his subject. If no one before Shelby Foote could make me follow the course of a battle with something of the sense and excitement it must have had for the author, no one since Macaulay has been able to hold my attention when writing history unless the narrative has had at least some of that same genius for portraiture, for character and scene, for pointed incident and the progress, not only of events, but of ideas. If even I might question, in light of subsequent research and even my own reading, some of Macaulay's conclusions and motivations, I can not deny either his remarkable skill as a writer, or the rhetorical force of his arguments, even those, in either their optimism or their complacency regarding the virtues of Empire and the like, with which I most strongly disagree. Macaulay then, to my mind, is the first great historian I read and appreciated as an adult; not just for what I might learn of events, or because his opinions might somehow support or inform my own, but because what he wrote was every bit as interesting as what he chose to write about.

All the virtues of reading history: the pleasure of sequential events, of organized fact and supported interpretation, of discreet biography, and resolved conflict, the possibility at least of gaining perspective on present developments from the experience of previous generations, while still appealing, count for less with me now than good writing. This would explain why I am not the most reliable judge of the historical significance of this or that human catastrophe, or the man to be trusted when it comes to dates and figures of population and production and so on. I am not, in short, much of a student of history. I know people, laymen, who are. I would refer all questions as to the Battle of Hastings, the implementation of the "Indian policy" of the United States government in the 19th Century and that sort of thing, to them. Likewise, the "long view" as found in Marxism and the like, is as foreign to my interests as such philosophic doctrines are to my own, admittedly circumscribed, way of thinking and my somewhat lazy intellectual habits. I read history books, again, as I read most books, for the writing.

As with my recent excursion into narrative verse, my frustration comes from not being better able to express my surprise and pleasure in the best of what I've read in this way, in such a way as to communicate my enthusiasm to others. If I can't even convince someone I like and respect after an admittedly brief acquaintance that she is missing out on one of the supreme joys of reading by never opening a novel of Dickens, what hope can I have of convincing anybody else that, should they find themselves in need of a really riveting, yet restful read, one could do a hell of a lot worse than picking up a history by William H. Prescott? Forget getting anyone to believe me when I tell them that George Crabbe's stories in verse might be as good, in their way, as Hardy's novels. How am I to explain my delight in finding multiple volumes of John Fiske's history of the United States, all at a very reasonable price, along with a three volume history by Henry Hallam of the English Constitution, all on the same day, in the same used bookstore?

Henry Hallam was the father and namesake of two remarkable sons, both of whom were tragically to die before either had the chance to fulfill their promise. One of these, Arthur Henry Hallam, was the subject of perhaps the most popular poem of the end of the 19th Century, "In Memoriam A.H.H.", by his best friend and fellow poet, Alfred Tennyson. Only reason I knew even enough to look at Henry Hallam's Constitutional History of England. Read a little about the influence of Hallam's history, and the respect still given it as a work of literature, by an admittedly narrow audience of the readers of this kind of thing, and determined that I should snap it up. Haven't started that one yet, beyond reading the first few pages on my lunch-break in the used bookstore. Sounds pretty good.

The other three historians in whom I have invested recently, are all Americans of roughly the same period, only one of whom has survived in print down to our day, William Prescott. What I picked up recently was the one book of his I'd never seen before, let alone read, his History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella. Not a period, or a court in which I've ever taken much interest. Other than the English, my reading in history has not tended to much before the reign of Queen Anne, when people seemed to start writing the best letters, keeping wonderful diaries and writing for these wonderful new rags called newspapers. Prescott got me again though, as soon as I'd started reading his Introduction, by reminding me how very differently a citizen of this still quite young Republic, in 1837, might look to the Fifteenth Century and Spain and see the progress of democratic institutions, and glimmers of the ideal in even that most reactionary and violent time. In fact, it it just that American idealism and optimism that Prescott shares with Motley and with John Fiske, a name unknown to me until this week, that most attracts me, other than the wonderful, clear prose, to this period of American historical writing. Motley's history of The Rise of the Dutch Republic, as it's title most obviously suggests, expresses just such a confidence in the evolution of representative government as I've found most endearing in Prescott and Macaulay, and shares with these great writers that same, eloquent, and inspiring outrage, untroubled by cynicism or doubt, that distinguishes some of the best writing found in any part of the best books of the period, history or otherwise.

Fiske, I will confess, drew me to him by being found in such handsome little blue books, all in a row, though I did not open even one of these until I'd read something of the writer and discovered that far from being yet another dusty Brahmin at the lectern in 19th Century Boston, Fiske was, in addition to being a major American historian, one of the earliest and most prolific proponents of Darwin in the United States. How had I never seen his name before? Moreover, unlike say his fellow Darwinian philosopher, the Englishman, Herbert Spencer, Fiske was a champion of racial and economic equality, and not one to just replace one system of unexamined, inherited privilege with another, based on an equally inhuman standard. I read a little of Fiske's history of The American Revolution before I bought that, and all the other Fiske I could find in the store, and recognized a good stylist, as well as a good soul. (Besides, as someone will probably point out soon enough, as with Edward Lear, I now look a little like Fiske. That doesn't hurt.)

So there now you have what I will be reading for awhile, or until I pick up something else. That all the men whose books I've just mentioned happen to be dead, and some now all but unknown, even as late as this week, to me, I suppose may only reinforce my reputation as a ghoul. Can't be helped. I suppose, if I wanted to attract more readers to my efforts here, or if I wanted an easier conversation in the rest of my life, I might try a bit harder to find new books written as well as these old ones, and living authors who might be as good company as these dead gentlemen, but why should I do so when, as I've said, I have just now nobody to please but myself? Who knows how long such a state of affairs may last? Genuinely sorry if I'm boring anyone, but I think I'd best please myself. Seems that's my reputation already, so why disappoint?

And so, back to Motley's horrid little bulldog, Philip II, the brave Duke of Alva, and the admirable Dutch.

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