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Beautiful books

I have never had enough time to read. This is a comforting thought, oddly enough, because I often feel guilty because I’m not reading as much as I want to–or ought to–today. I buy quite a few books (have to support the industry) and they are comfortably piled EVERYWHERE. But even in the days past when I imagine myself to have read so much more, I didn’t get around to everything. And surely that’s not such a bad thing, to have lots of books ahead?

I spent some time yesterday relishing a book I’ve owned for years but never read all the way through. It’s an old book, first published in 1951 in the United States: A Land, by Jacquetta Hawkes. This geological and archeological history of Britain is a remarkable fit with the work of David Christian, a favorite Berkshire editor. Hawkes is a literary writer, with flights of fancy and imagination that wouldn’t be permitted in a scholarly book today, but also a respected archeologist. I’m hurrying to finish it because Rachel (17) nearly tore it from my hands when I explained what it was about and read a few lines aloud. (A topic we both want to read about–how thrilling. It’ll be book club time in our house before long. She says that some of the authors she adored when she was younger, and read incessantly, have become annoying. So I’m going to be thinking about what to recommend to her.)

Reading pre-World War II books brings an interesting fact to mind. At least in England, it was assumed that a general reader would be able to read passages in French. (I’ve only occasionally read a book in which a knowledge of Latin was assumed.) This is true in Dorothy Sayers’s mysteries and in virtually any serious book. What does the modern reader, less and less likely to know French, make of this? I have enough French to struggle along, but wish I knew more. Another wonderful thing about earlier writers is that they frequently, naturally, quote poetry. What richness that must have added to people’s inner lives.

I’ve been thinking about literature because I have been writing an article about my years at the College of Creative Studies for the UCSB alumni magazine. I went there to study literature with a well-known critic and scholar, Marvin Mudrick, who had founded the College in 1968 as an autonomous entity on the UCSB campus. He would assign us a new novel every couple days, and we were asked (though perhaps not expected) to get through piles of Shakespeare (whom he loathed), Chaucer in a cleaned-up Middle English text (“just pretend it’s badly misspelled”), and Milton. It was English literature, obviously, not literature in general, and the only world literature I remember reading was a Chekhov short story. But perhaps that reflected my personal orientation, since Mudrick has been quoted as saying, “I simply don’t think there is any way of studying literature without tackling everything that’s written in the languages that you can read with comparative fluency.” (Wm. Theodore de Bary, the famous Columbia scholar who during the same period was “championing an entirely new vision of the place of Asia in general education and the core curriculum,” and who wrote the lead article for this month issue of Guanxi: The China Letter, countered this with forceful encouragement to read literature in translation, as Guanxi readers will see.)

Did I mention that it was an interdisciplinary weekend?

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