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An essay by Vernon Lee

Reading Books

Title:     Reading Books
Author: Vernon Lee [More Titles by Lee]

The chief point to be made in this matter is: that books, to fulfil their purpose, do not always require to be read. A book, for instance, which is a present, or an "hommage de l'auteur," has already served its purpose, like a visiting-card or a luggage label, at best like a ceremonial bouquet; and it is absurd to try and make it serve twice over, by reading it. The same applies, of course, to books lent without being asked for, and, in a still higher degree, to a book which has been discussed in society, and thus furnished out a due amount of conversation; to read such a book is an act of pedantry, showing slavishness to the names of things, and lack of insight into their real nature, which is revealed by the function they have been able to perform. Fancy, if public characters had to learn to snuff--a practice happily abandoned--because they occasionally received gifts of enamelled snuffboxes from foreign potentates!

But there are subtler sides to this subject, and it is of these I fain would speak. We are apt to blunt our literary sense by reading far too much, and to lessen our capacity for getting the great delights from books by making reading into a routine and a drudgery. Of course I know that reading books has its utilitarian side, and that we have to consider printed matter (let me never call it literature!) as the raw material whence we extract some of the information necessary to life. But long familiarity with an illiterate peasantry like the Italian one, inclines me to think that we grossly exaggerate the need of such book-grown knowledge. Except as regards scientific facts and the various practices--as medicine, engineering, and the like, founded on them--such knowledge is really very little connected with life, either practical or spiritual, and it is possible to act, to feel, and even to think and to express one's self with propriety and grace, while having simply no literature at all behind one. That this is really no paradox is proved by pointing to the Greeks, who, even in the time of Plato--let alone the time, whenever that was, of Homer--had not much more knowledge of books than my Italian servant, who knows a few scraps of Tasso, possesses a "Book of Dreams; or Key to the Lottery," and uses the literature I have foolishly bestowed upon him as blotters in which to keep loose bills, and wherein occasionally to do addition sums. So that the fact seems to be that reading books is useful chiefly to enable us to wish to read more books!

How many times does one not feel checked, when on the point of lending a book to what we call uneducated persons, by wondering what earthly texture of misapprehension and blanks they will weave out of its allusions and suggestions? And the same is the case of children. What fitter reading for a tall Greek goddess of ten than the tale of Cupid and Psyche, the most perfect of fairy stories with us; wicked sisters, subterranean adventures, ants helping to sort seeds, and terrible awaking drops of hot oil spilt over the bridegroom? But when I read to her this afternoon, shall I not see quite plainly over the edge of the book, that all the things which make it just what it is to me--the indescribable quality of the South, of antiquity and paganism--are utterly missed out; and that, to this divine young nymph, "Cupid and Psyche" is distinguishable from, say, "Beauty and the Beast" only by the unnecessary addition of a lot of heathenish names and the words which she does not even want to understand? Hence literature, alas! is, so to speak, for the literate; and one has to have read a great, great deal in order to taste the special exquisiteness of books, their marvellous essence of long-stored up, oddly mixed, subtly selected and hundredfold distilled suggestion.

But once this state of things reached, there is no need to read much; and every reason for not _keeping up_, as vain and foolish persons boast, "with literature." Since, the time has come, after planting and grafting and dragging watering-pots, for flowering and fruition; for books to do their best, to exert their full magic. This is the time when a verse, imperfectly remembered, will haunt the memory; and one takes down the book, reads it and what follows, judiciously breaking off, one's mind full of the flavour and scent. Or, again, talking with a friend, a certain passage of prose--the account of the Lambs going to the play when young, or the beginning of "Urn Burial," or a chapter (with due improvised skippings) of "Candide"--comes up in conversation; and one reads it rejoicing with one's friends, feeling the special rapture of united comprehension, of mind touching mind, like the little thrill of voice touching voice on the resolving sevenths of the old duets in thirds. Or even when, remembering some graver page--say the dedication of "Faust" to Goethe's dead contemporaries--one fetches the book and reaches it silently to the other one, not daring to read it out loud.... It is when these things happen that one is really getting the good of books; and that one feels that there really is something astonishing and mysterious in words taken out of the dictionary and arranged with commas and semicolons and full stops between them.

The greatest pleasures of reading consist in re-reading. Sometimes almost in not reading at all, but just thinking or feeling what there is inside the book, or what has come out of it, long ago, and passed into one's mind or heart, as the case may be. I wish to record in this reference a happy week once passed, at vintage time, in the Lower Apennines, with a beautiful copy of "Hippolytus," bound in white, which had been given me, regardless of my ignorance of Greek, by my dear Lombard friend who resembles a faun. I carried it about in my pocket; sometimes, at rare intervals, spelling out some word in _mai_ or in _totos_, and casting a glance on the interleaved crib; but more often letting the volume repose by me on the grass and crushed mint of the cool yard under the fig tree, while the last belated cicala sawed, and the wild bees hummed in the ivy flower of the old villa wall. For once you know the spirit of a book, there is a process (known to Petrarch with reference to Homer, whom he was unable to understand) of taking in its charm by merely turning over the pages, or even, as I say, in carrying it about. The literary essence, which is uncommonly subtle, has various modes of acting on us; and this particular manner of absorbing a book's spirit stands to the material operation called _reading_, much in the same way that _smell_, the act of breathing invisible volatile particles, stands to the more obvious wholesale process of _taste_.

Nay, such is the virtuous power of books, that, to those who are initiated and reverent, it can act from the mere title, or more properly, the binding. Of this I had an instance quite lately in the library of an old Jacobite house on the North Tyne. This library contained, besides its properly embodied books, a small collection existing, so to speak, only in the spirit, or at least in effigy; a door, to wit, being covered with real book-backs, or, more properly, backs of real books of which the inside was missing. A quaint, delightful collection! "Female traits," two volumes; four volumes (what dinners and breakfasts, as well as suppers, of horrors!) of Webster's "Vittoria Corombona," etc., the "Siege of Mons," "Ancient Mysteries," "The Epigrams of Martial," "A Journey through Italy," and Crebillon's novels. Contemplating these pseudo shelves of pageless tomes, I felt acutely how true it is that a book (for the truly lettered) can do its work without being read. I lingeringly relished (why did not Johnson give us a verb to _saporate_?) this mixed literature's flavour, humorous, romantic, and pedantic, beautifully welded. And I recognized that those gutted-away insides were quite superfluous: they had yielded their essence and their virtue.

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Vernon Lee's essay: Reading Books