On Bibliophiles and An Unfinished Novel

Every man who knows how to read has it in his power to magnify himself, to multiply the ways in which he exists, to make his life full, significant and interesting—Aldous Huxley

A bibliophile is a person who not only loves books but lives in them. He (or she) finds refuge in libraries and bookstores, and in literary conversation with likeminded individuals. Books form a major reference point for the devoted reader in the way that sports, money or politics do for others. While plenty of people read, often intelligently and perceptively, the booklover inhabits a special universe. There may be all sorts of booklovers in terms of the collections they keep; whether they are specialists or eclectic readers; whether they favor hardcovers, first editions, or any odds and ends they can pick up. But these superficial differences merely add variety to our experience. A more important distinction is between people who read to live, and people who live to read. Joseph Addison said that “Of all the diversions of life, there is none so proper to fill up its empty spaces as the reading of useful and entertaining authors.” But books are also a means to something beyond reading. “The best effect of any book,” notes Carlyle, “is that it excites the reader to self activity.” When we close a book we should be able to better relate to the world around us. “A book should teach us to enjoy life, or to endure it,” wrote Samuel Johnson.

Of course not all reading experiences are successful. One example, taken from my notes, is Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean. When I refer to it as an “unfinished novel,” I don’t mean that Pater didn’t complete it, but that I didn’t. Only a Victorian English aesthete and scholar could’ve produced such an odd work. There were admittedly some fine passages, like this one:

Thus the boyhood of Marius passed; on the whole, more given to contemplation than to action. Less prosperous in fortune than at an earlier day there had been reason to expect, and animating his solitude, as he read eagerly and intelligently, with the traditions of the past, already he lived much in the realm of the imagination, and became betimes, as he was to continue all through life, something of an idealist, constructing the world for himself in great measure from within, by the exercise of meditative power.

Yet I remember telling a friend that I had reached the third chapter without encountering one line of dialogue. As an attempt at recreating the philosophical and religious atmosphere of ancient Rome I wonder how much it actually reflects the world of a nineteenth century intellectual. After a half dozen chapters written in a dreamy, poetic half-light, it became impossible. Its hot-house luxuriant sentimentality is redolent of the later decadents and the lack of straightforward narrative was tedious beyond a few dozen pages. Pater came up with a great story, I think. He just needed somebody else to write it.

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