On Discovering Through Reading

A friend once expressed to me a frustration that prevents him from becoming more of a reader.  After leaving a second-hand bookstore, he explained (empty-handed) that everything is arranged by author and since he knows no authors, he can’t look for and find anything he would perhaps like to buy and read.  I pointed out that yes, works are arranged by author but broken up by subject.  Surely this should make his search for an interesting read less daunting.  I also pointed out that one simply discovers writers in reading, each book opening up many doors in the labyrinth that is literature.  In the end, though, the truth is he isn’t much of a reader.  This is no detriment to his character, for he is an industrious, hard-working young man.  He needn’t spend his days as I do ‘neath a pile of books, papers, and magazines hunched over, irritated by slight distractions, and wandering nomadically from one source of light to another.  No, to each his own.  However, I should like to show to him or anyone operating under any similar belief that they must know an author to be able to read them that this should not delay them in the slightest from picking up any literature and giving it a try.

A short time ago, perhaps a month or so, I purchased second-hand a book that has proven to be a lovely, enriching purchase: Modern and Classical Essayists – Twelve Masters.  Meant as a textbook of sorts, it presents three to four essays from twelve different writers with questions for comprehension, prompts for writing, and illuminating sections called “Nuts and Bolts” which take a look at how each writer achieves a certain something – usually points structural or stylistic.  One writer contained therein is Charles Lamb [1775-1834], an English writer born in London.  I was completely ignorant of the man and his work when I purchased the book, and I praise The Creator above that I had the good sense to do so anyway.  Indeed, I made the purchase because I knew some of the featured writers, but this allowed me to discover another writer, and one who has immediately become one of my favorites to read.

The twelve masters are listed on the back of the book and I perused them before deciding to buy it.  George Orwell, I was well familiar with, having read two of the three essays of his contained in this volume and a handful of his novels and books.  Michel de Montaigne I also knew of but I had only read one or two of his essays in the past and in French – this proved rather trying as they were written at the end of the sixteenth century and the language was a bit difficult.  I was intrigued by others whose names I have seen but whose work I have never read.  These include E.B. White, William Hazlitt, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Francis Bacon.  Shelby Steele is the first writer presented in the book and I enjoyed his featured essays – “Malcolm Little,” in particular.  I also found enjoyment in James Baldwin and Barbara Ehrenreich.  Reading the essays included that were penned by Francis Bacon was a wonderful experience and I have been sufficiently stimulated by them to go out and seek out more of his writings.  But against all these, my how Mr. Lamb stands out!

O fullness of delight![1]  Charles Lamb is one of those writers capable of penning sentences the reading of which is akin to rolling joyfully down a hill – sentences that, once begun, impart great energy and joy to the reader.  Sentences savored, relished, and enjoyed in a way that Bohumil Hrabal describes in the beginning of his novella Too Loud a Solitude: “Because when I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each blood vessel.”[2]  To read Lamb is to hear the cannons blow at the end of the 1812 Overture, the organ chiming in at the end of Mahler 2, to take hold of a lover’s hand early in a budding relationship, to hear Al-Khansa’ reciting nigh the fire (I’d imagine), to be reminded of natural warmth after a dreary winter – such happiness and joy therein embedded.

I provide an exhibit lifted from “The Praise of Chimney-Sweepers.”  Lamb here comments on how young chimney-sweepers are strangely pleased with a “wholesome and pleasant beverage” sold on Fleet Street “as thou approachest Bridge Street”:

“I know not by what particular conformation of the organ it happens, but I have always found that this composition is surprisingly gratifying to the palate of a young chimney-sweeper – whether the oily particles (sassafras is slightly oleaginous) do attenuate and soften fuliginous concretions, which are sometimes found (in dissections) to adhere to the roof of the mouth in these unfledged practitioners; or whether Nature, sensible that she had mingled too much of bitter wood in the lot of these raw victims, caused to grow out of the earth her sassafras for a sweet lenitive – but so it is, that no possible taste or odor to the senses of a young chimney-sweeper can convey a delicate excitement comparable to this mixture.  Being penniless, they will yet hang their black heads over the ascending steam, to gratify one sense if possible, seemingly no less pleased than those domestic animals, cats, when they purr over a new-found sprig of valerian.  There is something more in these sympathies than philosophy can inculcate.”

Another artisanal display is to be found in his 1821 essay “A Chapter on Ears,” here, the very beginning:

“I have no ear. – Mistake me not, reader, – nor imagine that I am by nature destitute of those exterior twin appendages, hanging ornaments, and (architecturally speaking) handsome volutes to the human capital.  Better my mother had never borne me. – I am, I think, rather delicately than copiously provided with those conduits; and I feel no disposition to envy the mule for his plenty, or the mole for her exactness, in those ingenious labyrinthine inlets – those indispensable side-intelligencers.”

These are sentences that, when reading them, invariably cause me to smile – they are jugglings of the tongue and mind, infused with humor and wit, in short: literary play.  There are those who say that Lamb’s writing is full of – and perhaps reliant upon – endless digressions; I agree with them to some extent.  I am not making a case that he is one of the best writers (“writer” is a big word and I don’t know how anyone could decide who is best, but as an interesting aside – a digression – I would submit Soren Kierkegaard as one of the best) but merely that his writing brings me great pleasure and as Shaye Saint John says when she finds a pod kernel while preparing stumpwater salad, “I’m so lucky to have found it!”  And I didn’t even need to know of him before the discovery, I just started reading. The above-mentioned Pan Hrabal is credited with another quote that runs thusly: “No book worth its salt is meant to put you to sleep, it’s meant to make you jump out of bed in your underwear and run and beat the author’s brains out.”  When I read Charles Lamb, I do experience such a paroxysm of energy and excitement and would love to run across town in my underwear to the author – not to beat his brains out, but instead slap my knee, yell “God Damn!” and give him a brotherly embrace.

[1] An interjection taken from Lamb’s 1822 essay “The Praise of Chimney-Sweepers”

[2] 1990 ed. Translated from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim

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