From the October 1988 issue of Chronicles.
"Ask the booksellers of London what is become of all these lights of the world."
Some 40 nonclassic books are discussed by Professor Perrin in this pleasant volume of literary preferences. By a classic, Noel Perrin means a work that everyone recognizes as highly important, even though one may never have opened it: something like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Here he gives us, instead, a number of good books that he has enjoyed and thinks you and I would enjoy—a few pages to each book.
To my delight, I find that Dr. Perrin dislikes the books I dislike—among them Silas Marner, most of William Dean Howells' fiction, and (I infer) the bulk of the rubbishy novels that are thrust upon us by the big book-review media nowadays. What is still better, I find among his 40 volumes some of the authors I most cherish. Permit me to set down a few succinct comments on some of those writers described by Perrin and approved by Kirk.
First of all we encounter Freya Stark, the most percipient of those talented Englishwomen who have written wisely about their travels in distant lands. Perrin commends her Iranian adventures and observations in The Valleys of the Assassins, the first Stark book that I happened upon. I like especially her Rome on the Euphrates, a remarkable piece of historical interpretation; and her volume of short essays, Perseus in the Wind. (I included her essay "Choice and Toleration" in my anthology The Portable Conservative Reader.) Because he began with Freya Stark, I knew at once that I would concur with most of Perrin's 40 choices.
A few pages later, Perrin gives us Robert Graves' magical but prophetic romance of the future. Watch the North Wind Rise (which in its original British edition was entitled Seven Days in New Crete). In my book, Enemies of the Permanent Things, I discuss at some length this fable of decadence at the end of the 20th century and of the renewal of the human condition through a reawakening to the transcendent. Once I sat in Graves' house at Deya, talking with him of magic (which he practiced); and to find that Perrin, too, much admired this romance—the least-known of Graves' many books—gave me an uncanny start. Like a good many other books among Perrin's 40 preferences, Watch the North Wind Rise is hard to find today.
Cheek by jowl with Graves, in A Reader's Delight, is George Ade of Indiana, with his Fables. Forty years ago I founded the George Ade Society of East Lansing, Michigan. Here is my favorite line from Ade: "It is hard to be blasé in a town that calls it blaze." (Indeed, I borrowed that sentence to insert in my African novel A Creature of the Twilight.) It is heartening to find Ade still beloved at Dartmouth, where Dr. Perrin adorns the department of English.
We pass by Stendahl, Gwen Raverat, and Henry King (not that I disdain them) to arrive at Ernest Thompson Seton's Wild Animals I Have Known, a prime favorite of my youth. I liked still better, though, Thompson Seton's Two Little Savages, recently reprinted—which I tried in vain to read to my daughters; distinctly it is a boy's book. Don't miss therein the battle between the skunk and the mother cat.
From Seton's wildernesses we tumble most abruptly into the London of that high-minded Cockney named Charles Williams: for Perrin, like this writer, takes All Hallows' Eve for the best and scariest of Williams' romances. Along with Walter de la Mare (appreciated later in this Reader's Delight), Williams much influenced my own tales of the mystical and the uncanny, in my collections The Princess of All Lands and Watchers at the Strait Gate.
We cannot touch here upon all of Perrin's selections, which are wideranging in the realm of letters. I come upon old friends, often unexpectedly, in many of his chapters. Why, here's Henry Adams, who was accorded a chapter in my book The Conservative Mind. Perrin praises Adams' realistic novel Democracy, as I do. He even mentions Baron Jacobi, a character in Democracy, whom I am forever quoting on the persistence of political corruption in this republic.
Ernest Bramah, Joseph Mitchell, W.N.P. Barbellion, Bryher, Lord Dunsany, Eric Newby—how those names conjure up for my mind's eye days or nights when I read those men of letters in a Scottish country house, or in Palermo, or in Rabat, or at my great-grandfather's house in the back country of Michigan! Dr. Perrin and I differ substantially, nevertheless, on the merits of recent novelists; I would name as my favorites only one or two of his selection (classics aside, of course).
But we concur in praise of Rose Macaulay, whose A Casual Commentary is named by Perrin; I would have selected her travels in antique lands, Pleasure of Ruins, or her novel The Towers of Trebizond (which last is mentioned by Perrin, too).
The only directly polemical or didactic book among Perrin's 40 is C.S. Lewis' They Asked for a Paper; and that (one of Lewis' lesser-known collections) argumentative only in part. "I dare to recommend Lewis in his scholarly role to the general reader," Perrin writes, "because he is that rarity among great scholars, a person with a clear and extremely readable prose style. . . . Lewis is amazing in his ability to express the full complexity of a thing in language as clear and ringing as crystal." Well put!
A Reader's Delight, as Perrin implies above, is intended for the General Reader or Common Reader: the sort of tolerably educated, intellectually quick person whom I have had in mind when writing my own books. Are Common Readers a dying breed nowadays? TV, video, and all such gadgets harass or seduce the Common Reader day in and day out. Books are priced so high that only the better public or institutional libraries can afford to purchase many of them; and the more book prices rise, the fewer purchasers may be found; thus the process becomes cumulative, price per book being increased to compensate for diminishing sales.
A dozen of the books commended by Dr. Perrin are out of print, though all but two of these may be obtained on interlibrary loan. Those two, he informs us, were published in London but not in the United States. Perrin mentions that his newspaper articles about out-of-print books have thrice persuaded publishers to bring out new printings or editions. A published lecture by this reviewer recently produced similar results. More Common Readers may survive than publishers surmise. As the number of decent oldfangled bookshops continues to diminish, more and more Common Readers must be reached by publishers' catalogs sent through the mails.
Not one of us Common Readers, probably, if required to name and describe 40 favorite nonclassic books after the fashion of A Reader's Delight, would draw up precisely Dr. Perrin's catalog—although it is doubtful if any informed Common Reader would be inclined to reject every book on the Perrin roster. Every man to his humor, in the republic of letters. Our private tastes are formed in part by what books we may have found to hand in youth, or what we have read at happy or solemn moments later in life, or by other personal circumstances.
As T.S. Eliot reasoned, it is not important what books we read, as that we should all read the same books. But he was referring in this passage to the great books upon which our literary culture is founded: the Greek and Roman classics, Dante, Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, a few others. Every nominally educated man or woman should have been introduced to those writers, that there may be formed a common ground of thought and imagination; otherwise, intellectual and spiritual disorder and gross misunderstanding prevail.
It is not with such indispensable books that Dr. Perrin is concerned in A Reader's Delight, however; he leaves us free to name those books that have moved us greatly, whether or not they may be classified as immortal prose or poetry. When asked once what lines had most affected him. Sir Osbert Sitwell truthfully replied, "Froggie would a-wooing go, / Whether his mother would let him or no." (That impending doom!) In most of us, certain books have touched a nerve, over the years; and often we feel impelled to persuade friends or students to take up those particular volumes, that they too may be moved for the better, or find consolation, or have imagination roused, or merely be tickled by wit.
My own library is lodged in a biggish brick building that once was a factory: a good place to read and write in the small hours. Some people think I have 10,000 volumes; I never have counted them; anyway, they are all good books, for I weed the shelves annually. Perrin would like the place. Might I select 40 of my books after the Perrin fashion: not the great famous books, but delightful ones—books worthy of being carried into eternity by one's soul, supposing that a bookish man might pass through the eye of a needle more easily than a rich man?
It would be an agonizing reappraisal, that final weeding of the shelves. Well, let me set down here merely three such books from my own library, by way of supplementing Perrin's 40 and suggesting what a rich diversity of choices every one of us Common Readers possesses.
One of those three might be Dreamthorp, by Alexander Smith, a little book of meditations published in 1863—once well-known, but now seldom mentioned. The Scots borough of Dreamthorp, by its loch, is modeled upon the real town of Linlithgow, now sadly altered from what it was in Smith's day. Those Common Readers who know George Gissing's slim volume The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft—which is to be regarded as a classic, I suppose, else I would include it among my three—will understand my strong affection for Dreamthorp, its serenity tinged with graceful melancholy. I do counsel you, Common Readers, to read Smith's essays "On Death and the Fear of Dying" and "A Shelf in My Bookcase."
Another of those three might be Arthur Morrison's Tales of Mean Streets (1894), I being something of a connoisseur of tumbledown lanes myself. These are realistic stories of London's East End, grim if often humorous, by a man who was no sentimentalist. I cannot resist mentioning also Morrison's two novels of the slums, A Child of the Jago and The Hole in the Wall, full of terror, full of fortitude. "The Hole in the Wall" is an East End pub; the novel commences engagingly, "My grandfather was a publican—and a sinner, as you will see."
Dr. Perrin's list began with a lady, and mine must end with one: Iris Origo, the half-American granddaughter of an Irish Earl, the wife of an Italian marquis. Her charmingly written studies of medieval Tuscany are models of humane scholarship. But her book that I would carry with me for eternal delight would be War in Val d'Orca, a journal of her precarious existence in rural Tuscany during the Second World War, when she and her husband gave shelter to partisans and escaped prisoners of war and various waifs and strays (published in 1947). Or should I choose, instead, her wise and elegant memoirs, Images and Shadows? Should I buy a bigger bookbag for my celestial travels, and crowd in all her books?
But enough of trying to pick and choose among the thousands of books on my shelves, some of which I have read but once, and others not at all! That way lies madness. Noel Perrin means to divert us, not to confine us within literary ramparts.
His is the latest endeavor at calling to our attention books that wake sound sentiments or rouse the imagination. Of earlier lively ventures of this kind, I commend particularly Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's The Art of Reading (1920) and Montgomery Belgion's Reading for Profit (1945)—both of these being, however, somewhat systematic studies, which A Reader's Delight does not pretend to be. Browse in Perrin's book for the fun of it; doubtless he will be content if he has helped to redeem a few souls from servitude to the boob tube or the tawdry fascinations of the best-seller list.
[A Reader's Delight, by Noel Perrin, Hanover; NH: University Press of New England]