There are times when all of us need a certain kind of book to read. It should be a shapeless, gentle, unexciting but mildly interesting book, that requires little concentration. It should be the kind of book that you can dip into anywhere, and leave off reading at any time. It is the sort of book that a man lying under a blanket with a cold can read when alert enough to do so.
It will surprise few, then, that I have been reading such a book. The cold that I currently have is making me rather dopey for some reason. Two examples: I managed to drive into a parked car at the weekend, luckily without damage on either side. And an email from my work today tells me that I even forgot to invoice my client for last month, meaning that I wouldn’t get paid! So like a child, perhaps I’d better be careful around sharp objects right now! (If the cold has left me that muddle-headed, I’d better be.) Isn’t it strange that a little virus should be so disabling to such a complex and wonderful machine as a man?
Since yesterday I have been reading volume 3 of the collected letters of C. S. Lewis, covering the 1930’s onwards. It is a mighty volume; indeed much too big a volume. I think that it tests the patience even of the most enthusiastic Lewisian, in truth.
Collections of letters can be interesting or dull. I was given the letters of Jane Austen a year or two back, which I found unreadable. The editor had evidently forgotten that most people will know nothing of her life, and will need clear footnotes to link the letters into a story. Much as I love Austen’s novels — indeed I reread Pride and Prejudice at the weekend, with great enjoyment — I donated the book to a charity shop. The letters of Lamb are said to be good, but I have not read them. I wonder which other English letter-writers I should read?
The Lewis letters are variable, as might be expected, but there is still much that is new, along with much that is of no real importance any more. An example of the former is a clergyman who turns out to be the possessor of an original letter from Dr Johnson to Mrs Thrale — I did not know that uncollected examples still existed –, and the footnote says that on his death it passed to Lewis, who in turn willed it to Pembroke College.
I’ve just read a couple of letters in which Lewis is reading Lockhart’s Life of Sir Walter Scott. It’s in nine volumes, and I have not read more than a page or two from some online PDF. Indeed searching for the post in which I last referred to this work, I find that it too was sparked by reading this same volume of Lewis. Was it really three and a half years ago, when I last read this book? Ah, how the years fly by!
Lewis tells us that Boswell’s Life of Johnson is the best literary biography in English, and I believe it. The two volume Everyman edition has stood on my shelves for many years. Indeed I bought it second-hand, with tattered dustjacket, probably during the 80’s or 90’s from some local bookshop. I took it to the now-vanished Amberstone Bookshop in Upper Orwell Street here in Ipswich, and they got some kind of plastic cover put around it, which helped preserve the dustjacket. I often used to visit that shop, back in the days before Amazon was heard of, and looked over all their stock of fantasy novels. Boswell has often enlightened a dull day. I heard of his book through the essays of Augustine Birrell, a true Boswellian, and yearned to read it before I ever did.
Not that I begin at the start of the book. The younger days of Johnson — or anyone — are of no real interest to me, I find. Tales of childish precocity do not seem very appealing. It is the man we wish to meet. Indeed I usually feel the same about chapters headed “Last days”. By that point the things that made a writer special have usually ceased to be, and peering into a sick room is never very edifying or cheering.
Instead I always open the first volume part way through, and find Johnson as a young man, come to London, in great poverty, and just issuing his London, a poetic version of one of Juvenal’s Satires. I’ve never read the poem through, but always remember his description of the sharp-elbowed competition, hungry for advancement and professing every skill:
All sciences a fasting monsieur knows,
And bid him go to hell; to hell he goes!
It is not so different today, working in modern IT, I think, and competing for work with every IT graduate that modern India can send.
But returning to Lockhart, I would quite like to sample his book. However I find myself rather reluctant to buy something in ten volumes! Perhaps one could borrow a volume from the local library, although I do wonder whether the infantilised libraries of today hold such books. The frequency of sales of “unborrowed books” suggests that such may long since have been disposed of. And an online search confirms that this staple of Victorian England is not to be found in Suffolk libraries.
A look on www.abebooks.co.uk tells me that a one-volume abridgement exists in the old Everyman series. Perhaps I should buy one of those. Thankfully the print-on-demand merchants like Kessinger have not filled up the search with cheap and abominable reprints, so I can see what there is for sale. But that also confirms that Lockhart is no longer read.
Indeed Lewis praises Lockhart in two letters. But it is telling that he didn’t finish the book, but was “obliged to lay it aside” and did not return to it.