Monday, February 6, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him. 


My Dear Theophilus,

As you know, I spend a good part of every week reading and commenting on books. Sometimes, this leads people to ask me if I don’t ever get sick of reading. The simplest answer is – yes, of course I do. And I don’t read all the time any more than I eat all the time. But both reading and eating are necessary to me.

Years ago, I used to be a film-reviewer, going out to see two or three new movies, in preview, each week. I’d get a similar question -  Don’t you get sick of seeing all those films?” Defensively, I would point out that most people watched far more hours of television each week than I spent watching movies. But really, my answer about books was the correct one for movies too. Of course I got tired of much of the dross I saw, and I was often happy to take a break from it.

It really is possible to read too much, and to end up interpreting the world in terms of print rather than print in terms of the world.

To illustrate this point, allow me to draw your attention to four writers who all, I think, limited their range as authors by tying themselves up with too much reading.

Take warning from them.

Specimen One – the Irish writer George Moore (1852-1933). A very clever, sardonic chap. Originally a disciple of Zola. Capable of writing solid realist novels like A Drama in Muslin and A Mummer’s Wife and his best-known Esther Waters. Capable of a witty three-part autobiography of Irish literary life, called Ave, Salve and Vale. Capable of a surprising symbolist novel like The Lake. But he took to reading too much and stuck to his flat in London and read and read some more – and by the end all he was able to do was to revise and revise his own earlier published novels, searching vainly for the perfect literary style. Reading killed him and killed his experience.

Specimen TwoAldous Huxley (1894-1963). A well-known name of course, if only for Brave New World. A genuine wit. Most of what he wrote is worth reading. But his own reading killed him too. This was the man who used to take volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica on holiday with him, to increase his knowledge of the real world, which he wasn’t experiencing more directly. He was “cerebrotonic” says one of his biographers – meaning someone bound by his brain rather than his senses. And gradually the characters in his work become walking ideas and abstractions rather than real people. Too much reading, obviously. It limited him rather than enlarging him.

Specimen Three – Cyril Connolly (1903-1974). A bit unfair, this one, as the chap made his living as a literary critic and was one of those people who could make or break reputations. Reading was his life. But it killed him. He wrote only one (mediocre) novel The Rock Pool, and one whiney book Enemies of Promise explaining why he couldn’t write fiction. For the rest it was reading, reading, reading and reviewing, reviewing, reviewing. It is recorded that he often used to loll in bed in a self-pitying stupor, surrounded by books to review, muttering “Poor Cyril! Poor Cyril!” Twit.

Specimen Four – Clive James. Born 1939. Now struggling with cancer. On that score he has my best wishes. Clive James really is the man who has read everything. He is a very good critic. In slim collections of essays like Even As We Speak, and hefty tomes like Cultural Amnesia he shows the breadth of his reading. Bravo. He is a pleasure to read, even though sometimes afflicted with an arse-licking attitude towards English royalty. I love the way he buffets equally totalitarianism of the Left and of the Right, and defends pluralistic democracy. Again bravo. But when he tries to write his own imaginative stuff? Clunk. Outside his jocular autobiography (Unreliable Memoirs etc.) and overtly satirical verse, his novels are bad journalism (The Re-Make) and his poetry uninventive. Having read too much, he cannot spread his wings and rise above being a critic.

            So take heed, dear Theophilus.

If you read too much you not only lose the enjoyment of life, but lose the ability to write with originality and freshness of vision, regardless of the great talents you may have begun with.

I close with a selection from one of my favourite poems in Walter de la Mare’s Peacock Pie. The poem is called The Bookworm and includes the following:-

            ‘I’m tired – Oh, tired of books,’ said Jack,
            ‘I long for meadows green,
            And woods where shadowy violets
            Nod their cool heads between….
            .. Something has gone, and ink and print
            Will never bring it back;
            I long for the green fields again,
            I’m tired of books,’ said Jack.”

My sentiments exactly sometimes,
Best regards


  1. I would find that declaring that reading had undone a writer was too hard a call to make. Could it not be that some failed writers would have written themselves out anyway or realised, albeit reluctantly, that they lacked the talent and could not go further?
    The only person I can think of who approaches your criteria was Herbert Read. He published a volume of verse and a novel and he did say to friends “The trouble is I have read far too much fiction and poetry”. Yet he found his metier and developed a good writing style as a critic and commentator on fine arts.

    1. Yes, I suppose I was being very naughty writing this, especially as all four of the named authors (with the possible exception of Cyril Connolly)wrote much admirably readable stuff. But I still have this enduring conviction that bookwormery is the enemy of original creative writing i.e. the sterile habit that regards reading in and of itself as a satisfactory creative enterprise, or that starts counting up how many books have been read each year as if that were the measure of anything. Also, I had recently come across that stinging comment by Thomas Hobbes, who prided himself on reading, selectively and closely, only a few books. To an inadequate philosopher and rival he quipped "I, too, would reason as lamely as you do had I read as much as you have."