Monthly Archives: October 2019

he used to think the fault lay in himself

 

 

“[Joseph] Fowke prided himself on a friendship that allowed him to be a reservoir of anecdotes about [Samuel] Johnson: ‘I remember Samuel Johnson remarking that in the early part of his studies he used always to think the fault lay in himself when he did not understand a passage, but at length, after many discouragements, he discovered that his author did not understand himself.’ ” [italics added]

 

— Joseph Fowke, letter to Philip Francis, 7 September 1789, quoted in Thomas M. Curley: Sir Robert Chambers: Law Literature and Empire in the Age of Johnson (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1998). pg. 375

 

 

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This quote calls something to mind about my experience in reading and writing.

I tend to read serious, weighty works of both nonfiction and fiction. I read slowly and deliberately. I often find myself reading passages and pages over again, often several times. The effort is usually worth it. It’s not necessarily that the author didn’t say it well, but the ideas or thoughts are deep and invite reflection. Or that the thought — the point being made — is embedded in a “dense,” intricate grammatical structure, which does not necessarily mean it was poorly written.

If something seems new or striking to me, I often make note of the passage — copy and save it.

(In general — this comment pertains not to reading per se but to cogitation engaged in in daily life, ongoing mental activity and the ordinary process of rumination — I tend to be a somewhat plodding thinker and to be very reflective. I run things through my mind over and over again, often something I can’t quite explain to myself to my satisfaction. Later — sometimes weeks later or longer — it will occur at times that a new way of seeing something I have been mulling over comes to me.)

 

 

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Samuel Johnson’s comment pertains to reading. It can be inferred from the above quote that he was a diligent reader. Everything I have read by him and about him supports this inference. He devoured books, read closely, with an active, engaged mind.

This is very true of me. I am the opposite of a “passive” reader. I am continually asking myself, do I agree with the author; is something well said or not; what kind of corroborative or evidentiary support is provided; and so on. What do I think? Is this a good book, in my opinion, or not, and if so, why or why not?

Books for me are nutritive. They are a source of ideas and a stimulus to mental activity. I do not read for “relaxation” (as, it seems, is often the case with TV). Yet reading is invigorating. Also pleasurable. And usually exciting.

An anecdote worth repeating by way of illustration is the following. I came across a review by the English historian J. H. Plumb in the 1980s in The New York Times Book Review. He mentioned among the great historical works of all time those of Francis Parkman.

I had heard of Parkman, but was not acquainted with and had not read his works. The mention of Parkman made me want to read him. Before starting to do so (once I had resolved to) and getting ahold of his books (not readily available), I experienced a frisson within me (akin to pleasurable feelings of anticipation in other spheres of human activity) at the thought of beginning an “excursion” into his works, which I knew meant reading not just one of them.

Over the course of months, I read all seven volumes of Parkman’s France and England in North America. It was an experience one might compare to a keenly anticipated prolonged overseas trip. As I told my therapist, who found the comment telling, it wasn’t just picking up a book. The excitement I felt showed how much reading meant to me.

I read books eagerly. I “devour” them. (Continually reflecting upon and critiquing what I read.) And extract every bit of wisdom and knowledge I can.

 

 

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According to Johnson, the fault often lies with the writer, not the reader. So true.

There have been innumerable instances in my own experience of reading writers who don’t take pains to be clear. Who don’t seem to feel it is worth the bother. Or — it seems to often be the case — never bothered, in the first place, to learn how to write. My own training and experience in writing began early, and I was also aware of the importance not just of having something to say, but of being able to write well. I worked very hard, from an early age, at writing, labored at it, at getting my ideas down on paper and polishing and improving a composition.

 

 

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I have read quite a few books over the years which were by authors supposedly learned and well informed, and highly regarded — often experts in their field — who turned out to be very poor writers. Who confound the reader and leave you more confused than enlightened. I have often found myself giving up and laying the supposedly authoritative and masterful work aside.

This sort or experience is also true of some epistolary and other communications and even conversations that I have had with persons I was closely acquainted with, who, rather than clarifying things, tended to obscure them with (sometimes) pomposity or thoughts and observations not made clearly that they are fond of expounding upon.

 

 

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Apropos clarity, as it pertains to writing, I have been accused of pomposity in my own writing. Such criticisms are utterly unfounded. My writings do display erudition, which, unaccountably, makes some readers uncomfortable. (It occurs to me: Erudition, learning, in the minds of persons such as my detractors, makes you a snob.)

I myself, as a reader, humble myself before a display of erudition, and am eager to be instructed and enlightened. But I find that often inferior writers are “showing off,” as it were, want to impress the reader without taking pains to be clear.

It should be apparent to anyone who reads my writings what pains I take to be clear. (My wife will tell you that.) The opposite of arcane. This is true of my “scholarly” writings (sometimes based on extensive research) and other pieces of mine that are on topics of general interest and often reflect personal opinions.

There are no examples in my writings of pretentiousness. And erudition (I am not an academic or renowned or well known scholar) is not a sin.

Samuel Johnson, by the way, expressed his opinions forcefully (for which he was often accused, I think unfairly, of arrogance) and brought great, indeed prodigious, learning to bear. He had a distinctive, elevated style which some commentators (not a few) have found pretentious and old fashioned, like eighteenth-century dress would now be. This bothers me not a whit.

 
— Roger W. Smith

   October 2019

specifics versus generalities; Orwell vis-à-vis Dreiser (a salutary principle for all writers)

 

 

 

I have been reading — with pleasure — George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.

Orwell eschews generalities. Compare to him a writer such as Theodore Dreiser:

And to it, at times, some troubled vessel feeling its way along the wide waters of the Sound, replied, its somber call adding to the sense of uncertainty and fatality which seemed to pervade the night. Because of this, and my own uniformly brooding state at the time, I was at once restless and sad, stirred by and hurt emotionally by the uncertainty and treachery that works forever under the walls of life. Why are we here? Where are we going? How beautiful and elusive this mystery of living–the appetites and hungers of men, their loves and hates.

— Theodore Dreiser, “This Madness [Aglaia],” Hearst’s International combined with Cosmopolitan, February 1929, pg. 198 [“This Madness” was a novel by Dreiser published in installments in the magazine.]

 

When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse. Of an intermediate balance, under the circumstances, there is no possibility. The city has its cunning wiles, no less than the infinitely smaller and more human tempter. There are large forces which allure with all the soulfulness of expression possible in the most cultured human. The gleam of a thousand lights is often as effective as the persuasive light in a wooing and fascinating eye. Half the undoing of the unsophisticated and natural mind is accomplished by forces wholly superhuman. A blare of sound, a roar of life, a vast array of human hives, appeal to the astonished senses in equivocal terms. Without a counsellor at hand to whisper cautious interpretations, what falsehoods may not these things breathe into the unguarded ear! {Note the verbosity and a sort of “randomness” in the prose, perhaps inducing something like vertigo in the reader. Very un-Orwellian.]

— Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie, Chapter I

 

You will never find such passages in Orwell.

Orwell’s sentences, his prose, are built out of (as if one were building a hut) the “sticks and stones” of SPECIFICS, specific DETAILS. For example:

 

War, to me, meant roaring projectiles and skipping shards of steel; above all it meant mud, lice, hunger, and cold. It is curious, but I dreaded the cold much more than I dreaded the enemy. The thought of it had been haunting me all the time I was in Barcelona; I had even lain awake at nights thinking of the cold in the trenches, the stand-to’s in the grisly dawns, the long hours on sentry-go with a frosted rifle, the icy mud that would slop over my boot-tops.

— George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, Chapter 2

 

 

As the alarm clock on the chest of drawers exploded like a horrid little bomb of bell metal, Dorothy, wrenched from the depths of some complex, troubling dream, awoke with a start and lay on her back looking into the darkness in extreme exhaustion.

The alarm clock continued its nagging, feminine clamour, which would go on for five minutes or-thereabouts if you did not stop it. Dorothy was aching from head to foot, and an insidious and contemptible selfpity, which usually seized upon her when it was time to get up in the morning, caused her to bury her head under the bedclothes and try to shut the hateful noise out of her ears. …

It was just half past five, and coldish for an August morning. Dorothy (her name was Dorothy Hare, and she was the only child of the Reverend Charles Hare, Rector of St. Athelstan’s, Knype Hill, Suffolk) put on her aged flannelette dressing-gown and felt her way downstairs. There was a chill morning smell of dust, damp plaster and the fried dabs from yesterday’s supper, and from either side of the passage on the second floor she could hear the antiphonal snoring of her father and of Ellen, the maid of all work. …

— George Orwell, A Clergyman’s Daughter, Chapter 1

 

This is not monotonous or boring writing. It’s the opposite. It engages the reader and fixes the attention completely.

 

— Roger W. Smith

    October 2019