I don’t have a commonplace book, and were I to begin, I would surely fall behind, even if it would be a rush of joy for me just to sit down to write with one of my fountain pens. How do I come up with quotes? I don’t, and never will, use a quotation book. That is cheating for me. Public speakers use books like that; I’m a reader and a writer and scholar. That means I’ve got to find my own quotations. Here’s what works for me – not that I think I’m all that good at it. Three shelves of books sit next to my desk. These books are my “writers” whose books contain generous underlining from my previous readings. I could list them, but they go back to Homer and the classical writings in both Greek and Latin, and then I jump forward to Augustine and Dante, and then onto Shakespeare, Montaigne, Addison and Steele … a basic chronological approach. I end with Eco, Nancy Mairs, R. Scott Brunner, and V.S. Naipaul. When I am writing something, I open some of these books and beg, borrow, and steal quotations. My favorites, of course, are those who twist life into a tangy juice – like Flannery O’Connor, or who draw their own smoke – like Isaiah Berlin. Sometimes Bacon can generate a new thought, othertimes Hazlitt can provide the chosen word, and on other occasions C.S. Lewis brushes the mountains with the clouds of magic. But there they sit, my friends.
It was F.D. Maurice who exhorted his contemporary readers and writers to abandon the dryness of academic distance, and to turn authors into trust-able friends. A book, he says, is to be “no more a collection of letters and leaves; it is a friend.” Hence, his signal essay is called “The Friendship of Books” in a book with that very name, and a good book it is. When theologians were making him an enemy, he made friends of authors: like Shakespeare, Bacon, Milton, Chaucer, Addison and Steele, (only barely with) Samuel Johnson, Goldsmith and Burke, and the poet William Cowper. These shelves hold my friends in a grand chorus of the joie de vivre. I’ve read them, and now I can turn to them when I am in need of either some good reading or a good line for making my writing better.
Most of these writers are somewhat of an addiction for me. Once a friend is found, I like to spend as much time with him or her as possible. That means purchasing (or borrowing from a library) as many of their books as I can find time to read. At some point, of course, time collides with that plan or I run over the allotted time for friendship. To extend this metaphor … if friendship means reading more books by that author, there are only three authors that depressed me when I came to the end of the books I wanted to read: E.B. White, C.S. Lewis and Joseph Epstein. A trinity of delightful reading. Well, not always. E.B. White confuses me. I’ve been by his home in Blue Hill, Maine, I’ve read his non-fiction, and I find most of the time he’s just over the edge of reality or a little too tragic for my tastes. Tragedy, in fact, is too strong for him for he rarely writes of the heroic. But, his wonderful essay on “Maine Speech”, where I first learned the word “baster” (either a gentilic “bastard” or simply Maine equivalent for the Southern “bless his heart”), sets the standard for writing about dialects. He also sets the standards for worrying about death. He moved to Maine, thinking he was about to die, and held the gates of Hades at bay for several decades!
If writers like E.B. White are among my favorites, there are many more famous and “classical” that I don’t know and haven’t read. With little shame, I can also say that they can either wait until I get to them or they will simply be unread and I won’t feel bad about it. I haven’t read all that much of Dickens, Emerson, Bront?, Shelley, Byron, e.e. cummings, or other poets. Nothing urges inside me to read Proust or Adams or Joyce or Wilde or Lawrence or Conrad or Graham Greene or Camus or Brecht or Kafka or Faulkner, and I have no intention of returning to long Russian novels, like War and Peace or The Brothers Karamazov. Shakespeare interests me a bit, but mostly in those writings of his that deal with the classics of ancient Greece and Rome. Hamlet, so I understand, is not on my desultory reading list. For these enormous and unforgivable holes in my reading, I remain stubbornly unrepentant with no offering or altar in sight. I’m sorry for the hubris. The writers I have read, though, are my friends.
My addiction to writers like those above leads to one of my life’s great pleasures: vacations. My wife, Kristen, a woman possessed with exquisite taste, beauty, and Midwestern commonsense. Among other things, Kris is a psychologist who likes to read. So vacations for us – now that our kids are grown and we are free to travel to exotic places with beaches, shady cabanas, and warm, breezy air – are times for us to read. My desultory reading line finds a blip on the screen whenever we go on vacation, and I plan readings months in advance. Some months ago we took a vacation to Aruba. On a table in my library I had the following books to choose from, and others were added before I made my final selection. I had three books by William Safire, two by (or on) H.L. Mencken, one on van Gogh, Hesketh Pearson’s biography of Sir Walter Scott, Adrian House’s biography of Saint Francis, Pindar’s Odes, and Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate. I was to take also Saint Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises and Gregory of Nyssa’s Ascetical Works (and odd choice, I see, for what would surround my life). We read, walked the beach, read some more, took generous naps, and enjoyed the air and dining of a southern hemisphere island that drew its breezes from Eden.
That is the best word to describe the desultory reader’s existence: Eden. When our daughter, Laura, was a teenager, she was in the habit of suddenly saying, at the oddest of moments, “I love my life.” Perhaps she learned that from her parents, because both of us love our life. And a big part of our life is the joie de vivre that comes from spending time with good friends, some of them living on planet earth and others alive and well on the shelves of our library. But as for a reading plan, my only plan is this: next I’ll finish off Sophocles’ Tragedies, move on to Euripides and the Greek comedians, do some theology reading on atonement, and then I’ll try on Jeffrie Murphy’s Getting Even: Forgiveness and Its Limits. With such good friends, we desultory readers are never alone.