Dr. Johnson was a man of many virtues, but the gentle handling of books was not among them. Because of his “slovenly and careless” way with books, his friends were less than enthusiastic about lending to him from their collections. The novelist Fanny Burney tells us how one of Garrick’s favorite routines involved imitating Johnson reading aloud from the actor’s rare and “stupendously bound” edition of Petrarch, and then, “in one of those fits of enthusiasm which always seem to require that he should spread his arms aloft in the air . . . suddenly pounc[ing] my poor Petrarca over his head upon the floor!”and forgetting all about it. Some, however, kept the books Johnson had mangled as curiosities.
Johnson’s atrocious treatment of books makes an ordinary mortal like myself feel a little less guilty about the horrible way I have been caring for mine. Just how horrible has become apparent over the past couple of weeks, when I have been attempting to impose some order on the chaos of my bookshelves: books defaced with comments and tea stains, books with broken backs and bent pages, books double-parked or left in stacks on the floor, books with bite marks (Wellington the dog’s, not mine), and even a book with a pellet hole from an air rifle—definitely mine. Guess I did not care much for Derrida’s The Truth in Painting.
I wasn’t always like this: before entering my grandfather’s library as a boy I was told always to wash my hands and be careful not to crack the spine. I only became a serial mangler of books when I set up shop as a critic twenty years ago and books became business tools.
But rearranging one’s books turns out to be more than just a chore. It also brings back all the happy memories spent in their company. The villa in Copenhagen, where I grew up, had no television, as my grandfather viewed the box as entertainment for “Dyslexics and Social Democrats.” Since the housekeeper and her cleaning ladies had their own chores to attend to, it was up to me to keep myself occupied. Reading solved the problem in the best possible manner.
I was reared mostly on Victorian novels, which had their own section in grandpa’s library. The first full-size book I read was David Copperfield, all 1,042 pages—the previous ones had been adaptations for children, so that was a milestone—and I never looked back. It was the hair-raising moments that stood out: Bill Sikes killing Nancy in Oliver Twist and Pip’s encounter with Magwitch in the churchyard in Great Expectations. Equally scary were Treasure Island’s Blind Pew in N. C. Wyeth’s depiction, and Robinson Crusoe, the ultimate man of self-reliance of an earlier age, finding that footprint in the sand.
The French also contributed: Jules Verne and of course Alexandre Dumas, who knew how to grab the reader’s attention with a sentence like “The sea is the cemetery of Château d’If” in The Count of Monte Cristo.
When I was in the middle of some particularly exciting novel, the housekeeper was under strict instructions to tell any playmates who came calling that “the young Master was busy doing his homework and cannot be disturbed.” Well guarded, my reading continued, accompanied by tea and toast with plums in Madeira.
Not all my reading was fiction: I was thrilled by the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, by Churchill’s account of the Battle of Omdurman and his exploits against the Boers in My Early Life, and by popular biographies about eighteenth- and nineteenth-century explorers like Cook and Stanley—I still have Stanley’s autograph on a calling card somewhere.
Add Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays and a generous dose of Kipling to the mix, and I was all set to become the perfect Victorian, ready to take on the duties of empire, were it not for two minor obstacles: I was born in the wrong country and in the wrong century. One might laugh at all this today, but my reading did produce a certain robust outlook on the world and a sense of right and wrong. I did not always abide by it, but at least I had a compass.
The book assignments we were given at school were not quite as fun as those one read on one’s own. Having to take notes somehow broke the spell—something I still feel today as a critic. In fact, during my year at boarding school in Britain, it wasn’t so much the novels and plays we analyzed to death that made a lasting impression, it was the essays of George Orwell. I never cared for his horny-handed proletarian spiel—he was an old Etonian, for goodness sake—but I took to heart his comments on language and the call for extreme clarity in writing.
And there were still moments of pure reading pleasure: the day I cut class and lay in a field in the Cotswolds with a bottle of Strongbow cider, a packet of Balkan Sobranies—oval, not round, cigarettes—a bar of Cadbury’s Brazil Nut Chocolate, and the first of Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman novels. Somehow playing truant, reading Flash, and smoking decadent Turkish cigarettes seemed a perfect fit.
As a grown-up, I have retained my fondness for Dickens: the best winter in recent memory was the one I spent reading all his novels, including Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend—the latter with characters like Mr. Boffin, the Golden Dustman-turned-history buff, and Mr. Venus, the taxidermist and “articulator of human bones” who tends to see everyone who enters his shop “in a bony light.” I am prepared to slug through reams of filler in Martin Chuzzlewitt for a character like Mrs. Gamp, the tipsy night nurse with her prodigious umbrella.
Generally, however, fiction now plays a lesser part: while I will read things like Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels or Robert Harris’s Cicero Trilogy on holiday, I seem to lack the patience to read about high-strung millennials with partnership issues. Instead, from my time as a foreign correspondent, the shelves abound with work-related political and military memoirs and biographies.
But if I were to pick the three names that have meant most to me as an adult, the choice is simple: Pepys, Boswell, and Burke.
Of the memoirs, nothing tops The Diary of Samuel Pepys, which introduces Modern Bureaucratic Man. Having obtained his position as secretary to the Navy Board, the Navy’s civilian oversight body, through the efforts of a distant relative, the Earl of Sandwich, Pepys is under no illusions about how he got his job, but sets about making himself indispensable: “Chance without merit brought me in; and that diligence only keeps me so, and will, living as I do among so many lazy people, that the diligent man becomes necessary, that they cannot do anything without him.”
Highly ambitious, but dependent on patronage, Pepys is willing to do what it takes to get ahead, which includes massive amounts of groveling and dissembling. It also means fretting endlessly over competitors: he scolds himself for being “so little master of my passions” that he loses sleep over trifles like who has the best office; but being intensely human, he cannot help himself.
Even though the diary is meant for his eyes only, the cringeworthy details Pepys is willing to commit to paper about himself are amazing. He loves his wife Elizabeth, but he can’t resist a bit of crumpet on the side. Again, he is puzzled by his own behavior, by “the folly of my mind”: “I am not, as I ought to be, able to command myself in the pleasure of my eye.”
His hypocrisy is hilarious. When he visits a bookstore to buy a French novel for his wife to translate, he finds L’Escolle des filles brimming with pornographic passages and labels it the most “bawdy, lewd book that I ever saw . . . so that I was ashamed reading in it.” A few weeks later we find him back buying it and eagerly reading it in his office, noting that it “is a mighty lewd book, but yet not amiss for a sober man once to read over to inform himself in the villainy of the world.”
But he is also extremely capable. When called as a witness in Parliament’s inquiry into the Medway disaster in which the Dutch in a raid up the Medway had managed to set three warships on fire and tow The Royal Charles back to Holland, he turns in a bravura performance, explaining how the Navy has been starved of funds despite constant warnings from his office. Rising to become Chief Secretary to the Admiralty, he laid the groundwork for Britain’s later naval dominance.
Of the biographies, Boswell’s Life of Johnson was the book that awoke my interest in the genre and whose interviewing techniques proved particularly useful to a journalist. Boswell was never afraid to ask the “dumb” question to bring Johnson out, such as “If, Sir, you were shut up in a castle, and a newborn child with you, what would you do?” Sometimes Johnson loses patience with him—“What is this, what is that, why is a cow’s tail long? why is a fox’s tail bushy?”—but quite often the method yields surprising answers.
Like a dramatist, Boswell carefully sets the scene, and he has a painter’s eye for the telling detail, citing Johnson’s own statement of how “the incidents which give life to a biography are of a volatile and evanescent kind, such as soon escape the memory.” Boswell’s inclusion of Johnson’s magnificent contempt for cucumbers comes to mind: “A cucumber should be well-sliced, dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out.”
Overall, what he aims for is a convincing picture of Johnson: “And he will be seen as he really was; for I profess to write, not his panegyrick, which must be all praise, but his Life; which great and good as he was, must not be supposed to be entirely perfect. To be as he was, is indeed subject of panegyrick enough to any man in this state of being.”
The result is a portrait of heroic stature: Johnson the kind man, who supports a household of outcasts and feeds his cat Hodge oysters; Johnson the intellectual bully, “talking for victory”—“There is no arguing with Johnson; for when his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it,” complains Oliver Goldsmith; and Johnson the courageous fighter in the arena, battling loneliness, poverty, poor health, and fear of death. Not only does Boswell give us Johnson, but he also presents the entire intellectual and artistic milieu around him: friends like Burke, Goldsmith, Garrick, and Sir Joshua Reynolds.
Finally, among political philosophers, Burke is the one most heavily underlined. While many of his countrymen welcomed the news from France, including Charles James Fox and William Wordsworth, Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France predicted what the end result would be long before the September Massacres of 1792 and the Terror.
In the Reflections,he is particularly sharp on the shapeshifting capacity of evil: “Seldom have two ages the same fashion in their pretexts and the same modes of mischief. Wickedness is a little more inventive. Whilst you are discussing fashion, the fashion is gone by. The very same vice assumes a new body.”
To guard against evil, in Burke’s view, politicians should be judged on their character and their actions, rather than their public statements. As he advised Chames-Jean-François de Pont, the young friend referred to on the title page of the Reflections, “Never wholly separate in your mind the merits of any political question from the men who are concerned in it.”
Regarding his hatred of mobs, Burke knew how French mobs had run amok in the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572, and he took the march on Versailles as a portent of things to come. From his own experience, he remembered how Protestant riffraff during the Gordon Riots of 1780 had attacked the houses of parliamentarians who had supported the Relief Act to Ireland, forcing him to move his furniture.
Such warnings seem particularly relevant today where mobs can form overnight on the internet, fueled by conspiracy theories, alternative realities, and all-pervasive spite. This time around, evil is faceless, anonymous.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 9, on page 78
Copyright © 2019 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com