…or agape of lexus…ok, I am having a bit of fun. Followers of this blog will know that I have been reading – and reading, and reading and reading – Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. This is an ambitious project (not nearly so ambitious as the writing of it) as it consists of six volumes adding up to somewhere between three and four thousand pages.
Gibbon originally planned to write “just” four volumes, but once he got through those, which finished off the western empire, he decided to carry on through the demise of the eastern, which took him another two fat books. At the moment I am about ten per cent of the way through the fourth, using my e-reader, and while in one way I am eager to finish, to make good what has been an appalling gap in my education, in another I am not really in a hurry: Decline and Fall is so beautifully written, I am treasuring the pleasure of the experience. It’s not just about the “facts”, not just the information, or the interpretation, it’s all of those plus the expression, the wonderful way Gibbon, labouring in the 18th century’s English Christian culture, put the boot in through a refined irony so delicious only a gourmet word chef could produce it. “Savouring the words” is more than a turn of phrase – reading Gibbon is a physical pleasure, and when my lips curl into a grin, I know I mean it literally. Pedants can curl up their own lips as I fudge the distinction between “eros” and “agape”. I don’t care.
Reading Gibbon has been made possible for me by the internet and the huge catalogue of downloadable books through the Gutenberg project and other sources. The slim little device that is an e-reader holds so many volumes and is so easy to carry around, it makes it easy – and affordable, as free is pretty cheap. But more than that – living as I do a reasonable distance from a major public library, much of the material on my e-reader is available only via the internet. This week, I’ve downloaded Boethius’ Consolation of philosophy and Jordanes’ history of the Goths. These represent to me different levels and/or kinds of reading pleasure, but it is pleasure nonetheless, and I feel blessed to be able to consult these minds at a distance of 1500 years. Nay more – not just consult, but engage with them. That is what reading allows, and is, say I, reading’s special strength, on top of all its other strengths.
Reading Gibbon put me in mind of another huge series – J G Frazer’s Golden Bough, subtitled variously but to me most interestingly as an essay on magic and religion. Frazer’s encyclopaedic account of prehistoric culture was initially published in two volumes around the turn of the 20th century, but he later expanded it to twelve volumes, and I once had all of them. They disappeared from my library sometime and I can’t say I’m really sorry about it as they were a drag to shift around and from my perspective the additional material didn’t add what Frazer seems to have thought, later the series was abridged to a “mere” two volumes.
But what made the Golden Bough for me was the truly amazing introduction, the occasion that prompted him to spend thirty or more years researching and writing his book. It is, as Gibbon, beautifully written and as Gibbon again, astonishing.
Great writing prompts great reading, it seems to me. But great reading only comes swirling out of a pool of non-great reading, just as great writing is just the best of a bigger pool of writing. People wiser and better qualified than I will ever be think about this, and I am not at all sure what they think, but what I think is that we are living through a time when reading is becoming progressively devalued. The same technology that enables me to read Edward Gibbon cover to cover is handmaiden to a decline in interest and even ability to do it. I have spent many years in the “writing game”, as a journalist, editor, and sub-editor. My colleagues should relish a “good read”, and in bite-sized and for the most part contemporary chunks, they do. But Shakespeare? “Too hard”. No amount of patient exposition of the joy of reading the bard, can persuade them. They will go to a play, and enjoy it. But Shakespeare is meant to be read as well as seen – in his own lifetime editions of his work were on sale, and not for other theatre companies to produce, but to be read, savoured, digested, delicious morsel by delicious morsel. And as the title of this post suggests, it is possible to go well beyond food in seeking a way to describe an activity that is as intimate as a reader’s love affair with a great writer.
So for Shakespeare read also the many other writing greats of the distant past – Greeks like Euripides and Plato, Romans like Virgil, renaissance marvels like Machiavelli, even the not so-old writers like Gibbon and Frazer – just too hard! Not enough time! Yes people will continue to read these and other great writers, specialists in them, and there will be enthusiasts for other writers, especially 19th century greats like Jane Austen, Dostoevsky,and Dickens whose works translate easily to film and television. But this more buttresses my point than disproves it. The idea that reading as an activity offers engagement with sensibilities across the ages is a progressively harder sell.
Celine wrote in the preface to Guignol’s Band, that in future “you’ll write in ‘telegraphic’ or you won’t write at all”.He went on to say that “excitement’s everything in life” Regrets for lost refinements fill his pages, but he didn’t flinch at the future.
In my own way, I’ve tried to draw attention to my favourites. My novels typically refer to, and often focus on, the writers and thinkers I admire, especially but far from only Shakespeare. Part of my dream of success as a writer is to send readers to them, to make my .greats their greats. Celine is one of those, and he appears often in this blog and is central to one of my books, Evilheart. Unlike that dour Frenchman, I’m far from ready to concede defeat.
My next book will sweep this theme up into the whirlwind of its composition…at least a llittle bit.
Thanks for reading.