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Monday, 15 October 2012

A reader's burden

Thursday, October 15th., London.

The appearance today of the first volume of a new edition of Boswell's "Johnson", edited by Augustine Birrell, reminds me once again that I have read but little of that work. Does there, I wonder, exist a being who has read all, or approximately all, that the person of average culture is supposed to have read, and that not to have read is a social sin? If such a being does exist, surely he is an old, a very old, man, who has read steadily that which he ought to have read sixteen hours a day, from early infancy.

" ... in my early years I read very hard. It is a sad reflection, but a true one, that I knew 
almost as much at eighteen as I know now." James Boswell, Life of Johnson (1791)

I cannot recall a single author of whom I have read everything - even of Jane Austen. I have never seen "Susan" and "The Watsons", one of which I have been told is superlatively good. Then there are large tracts of Shakespeare, Bacon, Spenser, nearly all Chaucer, Congreve, Dryden, Pope, Swift, Sterne, Johnson, Scott, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, Edgeworth, Ferrier, Lamb, Leigh Hunt, Wordsworth (nearly all), Tennyson, Swinburne, the Brontes, George Eliot, William Morris, George Meredith, Thomas Hardy, Savage Landor, Thackeray, Carlyle - in fact every classical author and most good modern authors, which I have never even overlooked. A list of the masterpieces I have not read would fill a volume. With only one author can I call myself familiar, Jane Austen. With Keats and Stevenson I have an acquaintance. So far of English. Of foreign authors I am familiar with de Maupassant and the de Goncourts. I have yet to finish Don Quixote!

There have indeed been minds overlaid by much reading, men who have piled 
such a load of books on their heads, their brains seem to be squashed by them. 
A.W. and J.C. Hare, Guesses at Truth (1827)

Nevertheless I cannot accuse myself of default. I have been extremely fond of reading since I was twenty, and since I was twenty I have read practically nothing ( save professionally as a literary critic) but what was "right". My leisure has been moderate, my desire strong and steady, my taste in selection certainly above the average, and yet in ten years I seem scarcely to have made an impression upon the intolerable multitude of volumes which "everyone is supposed to have read".

A Reader's burden
That I can read and be happy while I am reading is a great blessing. Could I have remembered, 
as some men do, what I read, I should have been able to call myself an educated man. But that 
power I have never possessed. Something is always left, - something dim and inaccurate, - but still something sufficient to preserve the taste for more. I am inclined to think that it is so for most readers. 
Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography (1883)

Essential characteristic of the really great novelist: a Christ-like, all-embracing compassion.

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