Cover image for A passion for books
A passion for books
Salwak, Dale.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
xviii, 208 pages ; 23 cm
The pleasures of reading / Joseph Epstein -- Other worlds to inhabit / John Bayley -- Casaubon's syndrome, or reader rampant / Ferdinand Mount -- Books in my life / G. Thomas Tanselle -- Hooked.. / Nina King -- Mountains and caverns / Alan Sillitoe -- Obsessed by Thomas Mann / Jeffrey Meyers -- Encountering Philip Larkin / Dale Salwak -- Devouring of the printed page / Ann Thwaite -- Discovering Jane Eyre / Catherine Peters -- The radiant way and after / Margaret Drabble -- Reading my father / Mary Gordon -- Into terra nova : a crossing with books / Laura L. Nagy -- Sine qua non / Frances H. Bachelder -- The performer and the reader / Michael Ellis -- Literature without books? / Laurence Lerner -- The sad demise of the personal library / James Shapiro -- The future of the academic book / Gill Davies -- The end of the book? Some perspectives on media change / Elizabeth L. Eisenstein.
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Z1003.2 .P37 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



A celebration of the value and importance of books and a spirited defense against the many gloomy voices in our so-called electronic age that say the printed book as we know it will soon be obsolete.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Literary critic Salwak brings together an engaging collection of essays on the pleasures of books--reading them, owning them, thinking about them, even fondling them. The text is divided into three sections: "Contemporary Trends," general essays on reading; "Books of Our Own," personal essays on favorite books and authors; and "Future Concerns," speculation on the future of print in an electronic world. Inevitably, some of this material sounds overly familiar: impassioned accounts of the physical pleasure to be derived from holding a book; naysayers decrying the electronic book; testimonials as to the ability of books to transport the reader to far-away lands of the imagination. Along with the predictable, though, there is the delightfully idiosyncratic: Joseph Epstein noting that the main virtue to be garnered from "a fair amount of reading of the belletristic kind" comes down to "a distrust of general ideas," or Margaret Drabble speaking in support of Wordsworth's careless handling of his fellow poet Southey's books. Good browsing material and a terrific source for anyone called upon to pontificate about books and reading. --Ilene Cooper

Publisher's Weekly Review

Despite the title of this collection of original essays by well-known authors, critics and book business figures, the length, mood and tone of these pieces seem designed more to resist than to stimulate passion. Each contributor provides a conversational summaryÄranging from the likable to the irritatingÄof a formative literary experience. All agree that books supply an imaginative variety and richness that trumps the competition, especially television and the Internet. The World Wide Web is the Darth Vader of this anthologyÄthe dark side of literacy that draws young Jedi knights away from Proust and Eliot and even from What Katy Did, Huck Finn and Little Women. Laurence Lerner, in something of a failure of imagination, asks, "Who derives sensuous pleasure from the pale gray of his computer casing, or the electron flow across the screen?" Catherine Peters worries that audiobooks may spell the end of reading while Ferdinand Mount bemoans the rise of "critical theory," although he is vague on what "critical theory" is, exactly. Despite the overly serious, pessimistic and even defensive tone, there are plenty of entertaining moments. Bibliographer Thomas Tanselle strives to break down the border between collecting books and reading them, Salwak offers a moving personal account of becoming a devoted reader of the poet Philip Larkin, only to be faced with scandalous biographical revelations about him. Most salutary of all, historian Elizabeth L. Eisenstein closes the volume by pointing out that "premature obituaries" for the book have a long history: Western reading habits, she writes, "are likely to persist, no matter how many new electronic instruments are devised." (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Essays from 19 British and American contributors on reading and on books as objects make up this anthology intended for academic audiences. Editor Salwak (English, Citrus Coll.; The Literary Biography: Problems and Solutions) provides an introduction, author bios, and suggestions for further reading. The book opens with Joseph Epstein's wonderful (previously published) essay, "The Pleasures of Reading," in which he concludes that "the charmingly ironic point of vast reading, at least as I have come to understand it, is to distrust much of one's education." Unfortunately, the rest of the selections do not measure up to Epstein's standard, though they do cover everything from the passion for book collecting to personal memories to concerns about a possibly bookless future. Recommended only for academic libraries needing material on the subject.ÄMary Paumier Jones, Westminster P.L., CO (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One The Pleasures of Reading JOSEPH EPSTEIN Five or six years ago, I was informed by my literary agent that two of my books were to be recorded by a firm called Books on Tape. Although the advance was not such as to earn me an honorable discharge from the financial wars, this was nonetheless pleasing news. Five or six months later, two smallish boxes arrived with the actual tapes. Ah, thought I, now here is a scrumptious little snack for the ego. I shall play these tapes in my car as I drive around Chicago, or on the Indiana Tollway, or up the Pacific Coast Highway. How soothing, how delicious the prospect, driving along and listening to that most amusing of people, oneself, or at least one's own thoughts. Wasn't it Philip Larkin who said that sex was altogether too good to share with anyone else? Listening to oneself on tape seemed the literary equivalent of Larkin's sentiment. Onan, I'm phonin', dear boy, to say you don't know the half of it. Or so I had supposed.     When I slipped my first tape into the tape player in my car, waiting for the lush cascade of words -- my words, every last darling one among them -- I was aquiver with anticipation. Cutting now directly to the chase, allow me to tell you that I didn't end up wrapped round a telephone pole, a silly grin of ecstasy on my face. No, I never made it through the first tape -- I never made it, in fact, through even the first five minutes of the first tape. As it turned out, the man assigned to record my books had an odd, slightly twerpy accent; his rhythms were not mine; and listening to him rattle on, rolling obliviously over my careful punctuation -- all this was more than I felt I could take.     I have since had four other of my books recorded on Books on Tape. The most recent of these has been a book of short stories, which contains ten or twelve Yiddish words that the (I assume underemployed) actor hired by Books on Tape, in his conscientiousness, actually called to get official pronunciations of -- such words as mishagoss, nurishkeit, mishpacha . But I found I could not listen to these tapes, either. I didn't even open the boxes in which they arrived. What is going on here? I know lots of intelligent people who listen to books on tape with intellectual profit and simple amusement. Why can't I?     Before getting round to an answer, let me go on to a further confession: I cannot read detective or spy fiction. It is not that, along with Edmund Wilson, I don't care who killed Roger Ackroyd -- though I guess, deep down, I really don't care all that much -- but that I just don't care to read about it. It is not my immitigable highbrowism, for my highbrowism turns out to be pretty easily mitigated. I don't in the least mind watching detective or spy stories in the movies or on television. Some of the best Hollywood movies -- Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, Farewell, My Lovely, The Day of the Jackal -- have been detective and spy stories, with the rest probably westerns; and while I wouldn't think to read a Tom Clancy novel, at my regular evening post as couch potato I find I am able to watch VCR versions of his movies and feel, as is nowadays said, hey, no pain whatsoever. I just can't bear to read the stuff.     The problem for me is that reading is I won't say a sacred but nevertheless a pretty serious act. A very sensual act it is, too. I take account of the look, feel, even smell of a book. I like, or feel uncomfortable with, its heft in my hand. In reading, pace means a great deal, and one of the good things about a book, as opposed to a tape, is that you can read it at your own pace: flying on by, stopping, re-reading, even nodding, nodding more frequently, till -- ka-boom -- the book drops from your hand.     I read, for the most part, very slowly. The very notion of speed-reading is repugnant to me. (`Read Anna Karenina last night,' an old joke about speed-reading has it. `A book set in Russia, isn't it?') The better the book, the more slowly I tend to read it. The older I get, also the more slowly I read -- not so much because my mental faculties begin to break down, which I'm sure they do, but because I am no longer so confident, as when younger I was, that I have a respectable chance of returning to re-read the book in my hand. Besides, the notion of speed-reading is doubly repugnant for speeding up a pleasure. If speed-reading were really to catch on, can speed-eating be far behind? Let us not speak of other pleasurable activities.     In a brief piece in The New Yorker , Benjamin Cheever, a great devotee of listening to books on tape, recounts that he not only listens to books on a tape player in his car but walks around the house wearing a Walkman `so that I can listen to a book while I run, rinse the dishes, make coffee, or shave.' I myself rarely leave the house without a book, and I have been known to read a few paragraphs in the elevator in our building, or possibly finish a page or two while in line at the bank, and even catch a quick paragraph in my car at a longish stoplight. But whenever, or wherever I read, I need a pencil nearby to make my inevitable sideline of something I consider important, or plan to return to, or need to look up. I sometimes copy out things from books I am reading in a commonplace book I keep. I cannot depart from a book until I have a distinct sense of my place, and usually prefer not to cease reading until I arrive at the beginning of the first full paragraph on the left-hand page. You may think me very anal, but I need to observe all these little idiosyncracies. (`Anality!' a character in an English novel exclaims when accused of it. `Anality -- my ass!')     Being a writer also makes me a slower reader. Anyone -- and I exclude only Ludwig Wittgenstein from this proposition -- who reads a sentence has to make the following little check on it: 1. Is it clear? 2. Is it (grammatically, semantically, logically) correct? 3. Is it interesting? 4. Is it true? 5. Is it (charming bonus) beautiful? And then, if he or she is a writer, three further questions arise: 1. How was it made? 2. Could it be improved? and 3. What, for my own writing, can I steal from it? I have never met a good writer who wasn't also a penetrating reader; and every good writer, with varying degrees of consciousness and subtlety, is also a plagiarist.     Shocking to report, now past sixty, I still do not know all the words in the English language. The other morning I was reading Owen Chadwick's fine book Britain and the Vatican during the Second World War and came upon Chadwick's description of Myron Taylor, President Roosevelt's personal envoy to Pope Pius XII, as `rhadamanthine.' It bugs me not to know a word. I am content not to know the meaning of the universe, or why God sent sin or suffering into the world, but not to know what a word means is beyond my tolerance. I trust you will think me on this matter altogether too rhadamanthine, which is to say, severe, or strict, coming from the judge Rhadamanthus in Hades in Greek mythology. But there it is, a tic, and I am stuck with it.     I am also stuck, though at last becoming slowly unstuck, with the notion of finishing any book I begin and of reading every blasted word of it. I was pleased, some years ago, to discover that Justice Holmes, a wonderfully penetrating reader of excellent taste, suffered the same affliction until the age of seventy-five. Behind this was Holmes's worry that, at the gates of heaven, St. Peter would quiz him about his reading, and he didn't want to be caught saying he had read a book that he hadn't really finished. I read this in one of the collections of Justice Holmes's letters, of all of which, take my word on it, I have read every word.     I have at long last arrived at the age of skimming, which I still don't do with an altogether clear conscience. But why, I now tell myself, should I suffer painful longueurs in novels, too-lengthy plot summaries in biographies of novelists, long quotations from third-rate sources. I may be beautiful, as the blues song has it, but I'm goin' to die someday, and, I now say to myself, how 'bout some better readin', before I pass away.     The notion that, mirabile dictu , I am going to die someday, now all too realistic, makes me more cautious in what I choose to read. I am handed an eight-hundred-page biography and am now forced to consider that reading such a book entails at least two weeks out of my reading life. Do I wish to make the investment? Suddenly this has become a fairly serious question.     Gertrude Stein said that the happiest moment of her life was that moment in which she realized she wouldn't be able to read all the books in the world. I suppose what made it happy for her was that it took off a fair amount of pressure. I have finally come to the realization that I shan't be able to read even all the good books in the world, and, far from making me happy, it leaves me, a naturally acquisitive fellow, a little sad. It does make rather more pressing, once one grants a world of limited possibilities, the question of which books one ought to read and which exclude.     The late Alexander Gershenkron, an economic historian at Harvard, once took up the matter of how much one can read in a lifetime, and with rather depressing statistical consequences. Gershenkron was then near seventy, and he estimated that, in his adult life, which he felt began at the age of twenty, he read roughly two books (outside of his professional reading) a week. This meant that, over fifty years of reading, one will have read only five thousand or so books. A piddling sum, when one realizes that something like fifty-five thousand books are published annually in the United States alone.     Given this daunting logistical problem, Gershenkron, in an essay in The American Scholar , remarked that it is a shame to have read too many of the wrong books, and so set out to discover criteria for establishing which are the right -- or best -- books. He arrived at three criteria, and these are: 1. a book should be intrinsically interesting; 2. a book should be re-readable; and 3. a book should be memorable. These criteria are thoughtful, impeccable, and, as by now you may have noticed, utterly useless. How, after all, can one know if a book is interesting until one has read well into it, or re-readable until one has read it through a second time, or memorable until long after one has finished reading it? One can't.     Advice about books has always been plentiful. The more practical the better I like it. The Wall Street Journal columnist Irving Kristol used to tell students at the NYU Business School never to show up for a job interview carrying a novel, which seems to me very sound advice, unless you happen to be interviewing for the job of literary critic or novelist. The late Arnaldo Momigliano, the great historian of the ancient world, once told me, in his strong Piedmontese accent, `You know, the cheapest way to acquire a book remains to buy it.' I puzzled over that for an hour or two, before figuring out that what Arnaldo meant was that if you bought a book, rather than have it given or lent to you, at least you weren't under any obligation to read the damn thing.     Perhaps in America, where cultural confidence has always been a bit shaky, advice about what one ought to read has also been especially plentiful. As early as 1771, a man named Robert Skipwith, who was to be Mrs. Jefferson's brother-in-law, asked the then twenty-eight-year-old Thomas Jefferson to draw up a list of books `suited to the capacity of a common reader who understands but little of the classicks and who has not leisure for any intricate or tedious study. Let them [these books] be improving and amusing.' Jefferson obliged with a list of 148 books, mostly in the classics but with a few intensely practical works, among them a book on horse-hoeing husbandry and Nourse's Compendium of Physic and Surgery .     The flow of such advice since has never ceased. There was Harvard's once famous five-foot shelf of classics and, later, Encyclopaedia Britannica's Great Books of the Western World . In the early 1980s, a book was published titled The List of Books: A Library of Over 3,000 Works . By the time it was published, of course, the list was dated, being filled with books of that day on politics and popular culture: instructing one on the importance of the novels of Kurt Vonnegut, the Vietnam history of Frances Fitzgerald, Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth , and other books that one now turns away from at the asking price of 25 cents at garage sales.     No one, I fear, can offer much useful advice on what you ought to read, apart from making the important distinction between serious and unserious books. I once suggested in an essay that certain books were age specific -- that is, that certain books ought or ought not to be read before or beyond certain ages: no Thomas Wolfe after eighteen; no F. Scott Fitzgerald beyond thirty, no Chekhov before thirty; no Proust before forty; no James Joyce beyond fifty -- that sort of thing. Perhaps the best and only worthwhile distinction is that made by a character in an R. K. Narayan novel, who divided his personal library into good books and bad. In mystical fact, books have a mysterious, unpatterned way of appearing when one needs them. Or so at least they have in my life.     I grew up in an almost entirely unbookish home. Although neither of my parents was an immigrant, and both were well-spoken, I don't remember there being an English dictionary in our apartment. Magazines and newspapers were around in plenty. Only two books were kept, these in many copies, and both were stored in the basement. These were books written by my grandfather, in Yiddish and Hebrew, published in Montreal, where he lived, and subsidized in good part by my father. Whenever someone visited us who read Hebrew or Yiddish, I was instructed to run down to the basement to supply him or her with one of my grandfather's seemingly never diminishing stock of books.     I mention all this even though it does a bit of damage to one of the more pleasing stereotypes about Jews -- that they are all bookish, artistic, sensitive, intellectual, born with something I can only call a culture gene. I grew up in a mostly Jewish neighborhood in which this gene seems never to have shown up. None of my boyhood friends was a reader, and neither was I. None of us played the piano, and certainly not the violin, that Jewish instrument par excellence . What we played were American sports, and what we yearned to be was wise in the ways of the modern city. The sons of moderately successful businessmen, we were adolescent gamblers and artful dodgers who hoped to grow into savvy men over whose eyes no one could pull the wool (make that cashmere).     Lonely children, or at least lonely boys, read books, and I was never lonely. A story is told about Edmund Wilson, whose mother worried that her son spent altogether too much time with books, and so bought him a baseball uniform and glove -- in which the young Wilson suited up and promptly sat under a tree in the family's yard in Red Bank, New Jersey, where he continued reading. If my mother, going in the opposite route from Mrs. Wilson, had given me a set of books, I should probably have used them as bases and to mark the foul lines.     When a boy I read a book or two -- Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, Black Beauty -- but for the most part my reading consisted of comic books and a publication still in circulation called Sport Magazine . When it came time to give book reports, I cheated by giving them from Classic Comics. When we were in, I believe, the fifth grade, a woman from the Chicago Public Library visited our school and, in a treacly accent, told us, `Boys and girls, boooks are your friends. They will take you to unknown shores and reveal to you hitherto hidden treasures. Yes, boys and girls, boooks truly are your friends, so you must never bend their backs or write in their margins or dog-ear their pages.' This most impressive little talk put me off serious reading for at least another full five years.     I have since come not only to agree with the library lady, to whom I owe an apology, but to go a step further with Marcel Proust, who in his essay `On Reading' claims, with some justification, that books, at least as company, are really superior to friends. One need engage in no small talk with a book, as Proust noted, no greetings in the hall, no expressions of gratitude, or excuses for delayed meetings. With books, unlike with friends, no sense of obligation exists. We are with them only because we absolutely wish to be with them. Nor do we have to laugh, politely, at their attempts at wit. As Proust says, `No more deference: we laugh at what Molière says only to the degree that we find him funny; when he bores us, we are not afraid to appear bored, and when we decidedly have had enough of being with him, we put him back in his place as bluntly as if he had neither genius nor fame.'     We may even, in extreme conditions, and contra the library lady, break the back and dog-ear the hell out of a book, which we certainly cannot do to friends. Besides, as you cannot with a friend, you can deal with a book at the pace you prefer: maundering, skimming, or plowing straight through. You can argue with a book, or even curse it, and not have to worry about being put down by a superior mind. (An Evanston bookseller once told me that he was much amused with a book that came into his shop that contained, in the margin of one of its pages, the remark, `C'mon, Ortega!')     The first book that really, that deeply, engaged my interest arrived when I was thirteen. It had a thick red cover, trimmed in black, and was titled All-American . It was written by a man named John R. Tunis, and was, as I had hoped it would be, about football -- high-school football. It was illustrated by a man named Hans Walleen, had a protagonist named Meyer Goldman, a Jewish halfback (anti-Semitism was part of the story), and was so immensely readable that I lapped up its 250 fairly large-print pages in a single day. As we should say nowadays, it blew me away.     How to recover what Marcel Proust calls the original psychological act of reading? I am not sure I can do it justice. I remember being swept up in John R. Tunis' story. I remember pulling for characters -- wanting them to win through. I remember wanting to rush to the end of the story, to make sure it ended in a victory for goodness, fairness, and decency (not to worry, it did). At the same time that I wanted to know how things worked out, I didn't really want the book to end and so to be ejected from this swell world that John R. Tunis created.     All-American did something that not many other things I had thus far encountered in life were able to do -- it took me out of myself and put me into a larger world. Not all that much larger, now that I come to think about it, but larger enough to stir my imagination. Even the details of reading the book return to me, forty-five years later. I read part of it in our living room, and finished it, supine, propped up on my bed, on top of the spread, leaning on my right elbow. (Continues...) Excerpted from A Passion for Books by Dale Salwak. Copyright © 1999 by Dale Salwak. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.