Sunday, March 13, 2016 3:13 AM
I used to burrow through the complete works of old authors—it was so comfortable in the worlds they created—a slower, more intimate and more gentle place than the present.
Just take a look at this:
“THE FOURTH CHAPTER
A MESSAGE FROM AFRICA
THAT Winter was a very cold one. And one night in December, when they were all sitting round the warm fire in the kitchen, and the Doctor was reading aloud to them out of books he had written himself in animal-language, the owl, Too-Too, suddenly said, “Sh! What’s that noise outside?”
They all listened; and presently they heard the sound of some one running. Then the door flew open and the monkey, Chee-Chee, ran in, badly out of breath.
“Doctor!” he cried, “I’ve just had a message from a cousin of mine in Africa. There is a terrible sickness among the monkeys out there. They are all catching it—and they are dying in hundreds. They have heard of you, and beg you to come to Africa to stop the sickness.”
“Who brought the message?” asked the Doctor, taking off his spectacles and laying down his book.
“A swallow,” said Chee-Chee. “She is outside on the rain-butt.”
“Bring her in by the fire,” said the Doctor. “She must be perished with the cold. The swallows flew South six weeks ago!”
So the swallow was brought in, all huddled and shivering; and although she was a little afraid at first, she soon got warmed up and sat on the edge of the mantelpiece and began to talk.”
– from: “The Story of Doctor Dolittle” by Hugh Lofting
Isn’t that delightful? Could you imagine a cozier scene? There were many things I didn’t care for in the Doctor Dolittle books—but I was hooked on the sense of contentment that radiated from each tale’s beginning and end—there were adventures—sure—but they were always bracketed by scenes of tea or a pipe-smoke, in an easy chair by a warm fireplace. It speaks perhaps more to my need for quiet and contentment than to any great skill of Mr Lofting as an author.
Or how about this fragment from an introduction to another great children’s book:
“This country is not Fairyland. What is it? ‘Tis the land of Fancy, and is of that pleasant kind that, when you tire of it—whisk!—you clap the leaves of this book together and ’tis gone, and you are ready for everyday life, with no harm done.
And now I lift the curtain that hangs between here and No-man’s-land. Will you come with me, sweet Reader? I thank you. Give me your hand.”
– from the introduction to: “The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood” by Howard Pyle
It seemed to me that no one could read such a preface without settling more deeply into their armchair and opening their mind to the verdant clearings about olde Nottingham Wood, busy with bold yeomen, rubicund friars, and good fellows who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor.
Or try this—from the introduction to a book so bound up in chivalry and honor and nobility that even the words have straight backs and stiff upper lips:
“Then to proceed forth in this said book, the which I direct unto all noble princes, lords and ladies, gentlemen or gentlewomen, that desire to read or hear read of the noble and joyous history of the great conqueror and excellent king, King Arthur, sometime king of this noble realm, then called Britain; I, William Caxton, simple person, present this book following,”
– from Will Caxton’s preface to: “Le Morte D’Arthur” (Sir Thomas Malory’s Book of King Arthur and of his Noble Knights of the Round Table)
How happy I was to find, later on, that even the adult fare of long ago was couched in intimate, trusting honesty:
“This little work was finished in the year 1803, and intended for immediate publication. It was disposed of to a bookseller, it was even advertised, and why the business proceeded no farther, the author has never been able to learn. That any bookseller should think it worth-while to purchase what he did not think it worth-while to publish seems extraordinary. But with this, neither the author nor the public have any other concern than as some observation is necessary upon those parts of the work which thirteen years have made comparatively obsolete. The public are entreated to bear in mind that thirteen years have passed since it was finished, many more since it was begun, and that during that period, places, manners, books, and opinions have undergone considerable changes.”
– Advertisement by the Authoress, To “Northanger Abbey” [by Jane Austen]
One of my favorite features of these older writers was their complete lack of concern with the length of their sentences—or with how long they took to make a point:
Treats of a Place Where Oliver Twist was born, and of the Circumstances Attending his Birth.
Among other public buildings in a certain town which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, it boasts of one which is common to most towns, great or small, to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse was born, on a day and date which I need not take upon myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events, the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.”
– from: “Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens
Even in sophistication, we find cynicism and the weight of experience translated into the subtlest of sentiments:
“The Memoires of Barry Lyndon, Esq.
Chapter I. My Pedigree and Family–Undergo the Influence of the Tender Passion
Since the days of Adam, there has been hardly a mischief done in this world but a woman has been at the bottom of it. Ever since ours was a family (and that must be very NEAR Adam’s time,—so old, noble, and illustrious are the Barrys, as everybody knows) women have played a mighty part with the destinies of our race.
I presume that there is no gentleman in Europe that has not heard of the house of Barry of Barryogue, of the kingdom of Ireland, than which a more famous name is not to be found in Gwillim or D’Hozier; and though, as a man of the world, I have learned to despise heartily the claims of some PRETENDERS to high birth who have no more genealogy than the lacquey who cleans my boots, and though I laugh to utter scorn the boasting of many of my countrymen, who are all for descending from kings of Ireland, and talk of a domain no bigger than would feed a pig as if it were a principality; yet truth compels me to assert that my family was the noblest of the island, and, perhaps, of the universal world; while their possessions, now insignificant and torn from us by war, by treachery, by the loss of time, by ancestral extravagance, by adhesion to the old faith and monarch, were formerly prodigious, and embraced many counties, at a time when Ireland was vastly more prosperous than now. I would assume the Irish crown over my coat-of-arms, but that there are so many silly pretenders to that distinction who bear it and render it common.”
– from: “Barry Lyndon” By William Makepeace Thackeray
I could read this syrup all day—it often made me despair of having been born too late—into a world that has no time or patience for such graceful effusion.
And I couldn’t just pick up such books and start reading them, like a magazine or a newspaper—these books were fine wines—they had to be set up for, settled in for, and my mind had to be quiet enough for their delicate traceries to take hold of my imagination—they were too quiet to break through to a mind caught up in 20th century busyness.
However, once well started, great books became another world, so distinct and real that I would hurry through whatever obstacles stood between me and a return to those pages—and once back there, I was not easily drawn back into consciousness of the world around me. I didn’t study these works as ‘classic literature’—I didn’t attend to the structure, plot, or characterizations—I simply consumed the story, swept up in a vicarious universe. I couldn’t even remember what I’d read—not in the way of a student—they were movies that played in my mind—my involvement was total.
Well, things aren’t quite like that anymore. Like many of my former pursuits, my reading has been rendered difficult, brief, and harder to get lost in. Plus, there isn’t much left, unless I start re-reading those same books (not a terrible idea). But reading remains my favorite thing to do—I’m a bookworm, tried and true. Give me a choice between a good book and a good time in real life—and I’ll retire to find my reading glasses and a comfortable chair.
All that being said, I made two videos today—the first is a brief improv, but the second is an interesting collection of seven short works by the baroque German composer, Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), who was self-taught and became a musician against his parents’ wishes—two things I admire in any person.
Goodnight for now…