Monday, October 16, 2006


Another perfect bedside browsing book

I've been reading Charles Van Doren's The Joy of Reading (Harmony 1985) and I can't say enough good things about it. But I'll try: he is the kind of writer who is so persuasive and warm regarding book-love that he inspires me to run to the bookshelves nearby (any will do - home, shop, local library) and start tracking down and devoting myself to the titles he recommends. He's a generous, inlcusive writer, and his introduction about his own love of reading is a treasure. He recommends books which are difficult, and instead of coming off sounding like an overweening intellectual, he tells us outright that certain books are difficult, but if we stick with them and read slowly and attentively, the dividends are immense and well worth the trouble. Then he tempers these entries (Dante, Robert Browning, Kant, etc.) with entries on purely delightful books which are easy to read and easy to love because they are simply the best of the best (St. Augustine, Jane Austen, even Margaret Wise Brown's Goodnight Moon). The book is arranged alphabetically by author, and then Van Doren discusses what he believes to be the best of that author's work, in an easy, intelligent, often humorous manner. The pages are flying by, I'm about halfway through. A few words about reading, from the introduction:

"I become distressed if I am anywhere without a book..." (p.1)

"Life without books would be, for me, a vacant horror." (p.1)

"From Buchanan (an undergraduate professor of his at St. John's College) I learned an amazing thing: not everything, even in the best books, can be understood, even by the best readers." (p.4)

And on pages six and seven he recounts spending a year reading and browsing through all of the thousands of English literature books in the library at Columbia University - too long a story to reproduce here, but worth seeking out. He wraps up this account by saying:

"Looking back, I realize that what happened during the year was that certain books emerged from the sea of literature that surrounded me, unmistakably and remarkably.... I came to understand at that time which books are good and which are not and why. It is a lesson I have not forgotten."

I've had this book for a while, and referred to it before, but had never sat down and read it through. A wonderful resource, from the son of Pulitzer-winner Mark Van Doren, former quiz-show contestant, and friend of Clifton Fadiman and Mortimer J. Adler. Reading this book is akin to having a trusted friend pressing books into your hands, saying, Read this, read this! And the only possible response is, Ok, ok, I will!

This looks like a very satisfying book, as well as a dangerous one (leading to unstable to-be-read towers).

Congratulations to Ryan. A good friend just ran the Lowell Marathon in 3:46; I will not tell him about Ryan's time!


P.S. I recently finished A Short Walk In The Hindu Kush, which was great fun. Thanks for the recommendation.
Oh Dan, my towers are already unstable...

Glad you liked Newby - that book is one of my all-time favorites in the following travel subgenre: With No Prior Experience The Intrepid English Traveller Boldly Sallies Forth.
I've been interested in reading Newby's When the Snow Comes, They Will Take You Away, about his escape from a prison camp in WWII. Noel Perrin talked about this in his Reader's Delight and said it was more light-hearted than you'd expect from such a description. I believe this now.

I was reminded while reading this about my first backpacking experience, with a couple friends in a wilderness area in Wyoming. We were pretty clueless, but the mountains weren't as dangerous as those in Nuristan (at least where we were hiking) and we did speak the language. I recommended the book to my friend, who still backpacks, and hope he doesn't send a telegram suggesting Nuristan.
I've always dreamed of visiting ancient sites around Afghanistan and what used to be Persia, but I don't think I'll get there, somehow. So books do fill a void... Newby's among them. I haven't read his WWII memoir, but I recall that on this journey he met the Italian woman who later became his wife. I also loved his book "The Great Grain Race" about a final clipper ship journey from Australia. Glad you didn't perish in the wilds of Wyoming.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?