Sunday, November 10, 2013


Books We Think We Have Read

None of the first four books written by renowned grammarian and lexicographer H.W. Fowler (1858-1933) seems to be available on the World Wide Web. The following list, which doesn't include works written in collaboration with his brother, comes from Jenny McMorris, The Warden of English: The Life of H.W. Fowler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 229:
Fowler's first article, "Books We Think We Have Read," The Spectator, Vol. 84, No. 3,734 (January 20, 1900) 83-84, appeared anonymously and is reproduced below.
There are essentials of respectability which we all assume about our neighbours (and ourselves), as, that they (and we) do not lie, "unless they be so disposed or it stands them in good stead," are no cowards, except for reasons that Falstaff might approve, do not pay less than a weekly minimum to the laundress, feel no temptation to put their table-knives where Germans are supposed to put them, and are not ignorant of certain books. Not without indignation we often detect a neighbour coming short in one or other requirement; more in sorrow than in anger we now and then have to confess the same of and to ourselves. Shortcomings of the literary kind differ somewhat from the rest; they are oftener realised, but the pang is less acute; custom stales it; we get to know the flash of self-reproach followed by the swift relieving thunder of good resolution, which so habitually rumbles away into ineffectual silence that anything but vanum fulmen is something of a portent. Still, it is with a genuine shock of vexed surprise that we surrender again and again the comfortable conviction that we have read all that decency requires of an educated man, and plead guilty to Mr. Frederic Harrison's indictment, "the incorrigible habit of reading the little books." Gigadibs, the literary man, may be presumed safe against such shocks; the great books are very much his stock-in-trade; if he neglects them, he soon finds himself hampered at every turn, dare not hazard some telling allusion for fear of a blunder; but alas for the rest of us I the little books, and the illiterate pains and joys of living, are too engrossing. Some sociable athlete of five-and-twenty remarks that it is a queer thing, but up to fifteen he was so devoted a reader that he could never be got out of the house. His literature now is the Sporting Life; it is queer: credimus quia impossibile; yet a doubt will lurk whether the pages of "Robinson Crusoe," if he should turn them, would not prove for him fuller of novelty than reminiscence. Hear Mr. Froude on Bunyan, and you conclude that nearly as many people have read the "Pilgrim's Progress" as have read Genesis and the Gospels; but we suspect Mr. Froude of having credited his own reading to a multitude as fictitious as Macaulay's schoolboy. A Sunday afternoon paternal reading of the fight with Apollyon, dimly recalled, and assisted by the familiar sound of the Slough of Despond and Vanity Fair, suffices to give a sort of vicarious title good enough for us, till one day, stranded bookless in an inn, we learn under compulsion that the Interpreter's House and the Delectable Mountains and the Valley of Humiliation are in truth unknown regions to us; the man who hailed a new book's advent by taking down an old had reason, we reflect; at least this larger air, this naive simplicity, may be as healthy a change from magazines and problem plays as the holiday jaunt, which has brought us acquainted with it, from the Stock Exchange. You cannot remember a time when the tilt against the windmills was not part of your consciousness, and have lived perhaps with an engraving of the Knight and the shepherds, or Sancho and the Duchess; it surely is absurd to suppose that you have not read the book,—when you have so often excused yourself, too, for ignorance of some pedantic allusion by saying that it is so long since you did so; and yet—?

It is easiest for these assumptions to be made about the books which are luckless enough to appeal to youth as well as to maturity; luckless, for nothing can save them, once stamped juvenile, from being taken as read. What, read what we may have read before? Forbid it, spirit of the century! If Homer is cognisant of our England, how must he hug himself for his happy thought of writing Greek, not English; else had his been among the boys' books, and his "fit audience, though few," among the elders had been fewer. Mention of green spectacles, a popular ditty about Olivia, a hazy memory of "fudge," do for the "Vicar" what a breakfast-table discussion of egg-cracking, and a newspaper reference to Laputa or the Struldbrugs, do for Gulliver,—make us believe we have had out of them what is to be had; and "Tom Jones" belongs to the same category.

But the books which children can enjoy are not the only ones to which the delusion attaches. We are angry if any one doubts our intimacy with Shakespeare. But what proportion of the "educated" know the sonnets or the less read plays? To have turned half-a-dozen sonnets into elegiacs and skimmed a pamphlet on Mr. W.H. and Thorpe is not to have read the sonnets; the plot and the names of Valentine and Proteus, retained from Mary Lamb, are sorry spoils from the Two Gentlemen of Verona. And boyhood's wholesome indifference to artistic canons about a whole with beginning and middle and end may have left us in the practical belief that the two books of the "Paradise Lost" under which we suffered at school comprised, in a philosophic sense, the entire work; we have never looked on "Milton's Adam when he awoke, child and man at once," but we have been in company with Satan and Beelzebub, and to disclaim having read Milton would be mere punctilio.

Well, perhaps the authors have no ground of complaint; the testimony to their greatness is the very fact that they have drawn their characters in lines firm and broad enough to be so well known that we scarce need to go to the originals. The authors on their Parnassus may well be content; but we below are fools if we are content for our part to give them our empty worship without enjoying the good gifts they proffer. Among these gifts are treasures new and old: much that is new to us we shall not fail to find: literary fame that has stood the test of time does not lie. Such new wealth needs not to be recommended; but a special charm clings to the old, to the incidents and characters that we knew before in some sort of reproduction. What more delightful than to find yourself face to face in Berlin, say, with the Van Eyck "man with a pink" whose black and white counterfeit has been upon your wall for years? So it is when Fag's transference of kicks is known again in Sancho's pronunciation lesson, Mrs. Malaprop in Dogberry, and Acres' courage in Sir Andrew's. But if we like to find the original, even when the copy is from a master-hand—and Sheridan is no vulgar plagiarist—how much more when all we have else is the poor thin outline of common talk?

And now a word upon the way to enjoy the books that we affect to have read, or have read with the half-reading of childhood. They are not of the kind that cry aloud to be swallowed, they "are to be chewed and digested"; finish them at a sitting, and you feel that you have been a spendthrift and a glutton. Happy is the man who can take them as relish with breakfast bread and butter, or noonday bread and cheese; those bovine products seem to fill the blood with a bovine, browsing humour, apt for chewing the cud.

Don Quixote shall last you on such terms for a month or two. The elastic scheme, that might have shrunk to one volume, or stretched to twenty, you know before; excitement is not in question; no tossing off of ardent spirits, but the connoisseur's deliberate rolling in the mouth of some old vintage; the most poignant emotion a mild regret that Sancho's gift of Solomon-judgment should meet such poor requital, the cream of knighthood be worsted at last in fair encounter, and Dulcinea keep her mysterious nonentity to the end. We had designed to say more than space will allow us of this greatest of the unread. It is churlish to end a feast of delight and say no grace, to close a book whose every page is luminous without an effort to spread the light; "something may be said or written—a word be spoken—that may help, in some infinitesimal proportion," not the fame of the famous, but the knowledge of the half-known.

It may be something for the timid undertaker of stories long and old to be assured that here is no fine scheme tailing off in the sequel into monotony and weariness. The material of all sorts is as inexhaustible as the amazing flood of Sancho's proverbs, which are more apposite than the fastidious Don (who "must sweat, as if he were delving, to speak but one and apply it properly") will allow. Master and man develop as we read: the Knight from unconscious to conscious humourist, from his simple self to Cervantes and himself in one, the squire from butt to buffoon and from buffoon to Solomon; yet neither so that the earlier elements evaporate. And the bond between them is ever stronger and easier; the double workings of self-delusion are its core, and the juxtaposition has all the effect of the twin-plots of Shakespeare: Gloster is but another spelling of Lear; and if the knight-errant can admit that Dulcinea's qualities and existence may be imaginary, yet all the time hold her sacred, the squire on his lower plane can accept as very truth the juggling metamorphosis to a skipping wench of which he knows himself the author. Charming is the mingled pride and tenderness with which each comes to regard the other's strength and weakness. Yet, O flower of chivalry, was it well done to permit, nay, to entreat, that another's back should bear the lashes of disenchantment? And, thou that didst so revere thy lord's wisdom, was it fit that thou shouldst lay him on his back to save thine own? Like master like man once more. To conclude is hopeless: we must break off, and trust our problematic converts to complete the eulogium for themselves.

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