David Wilson, of Jesus College, Cambridge, in a letter to the London Review of Books (December 15th), takes Christian Lorentzen to task for sneering at Donald Trump’s reading habits in a piece in the preceding issue (December 1st) of the same journal.
Lorentzen was referring to a remark Trump made to Megyn Kelly in an interview last summer, in answer, presumably to a question on what books he read or what books had influenced him. “I read chapters,” the president-elect replied. Should Trump wish to defend himself, Wilson writes, he might cite the case of Dr Johnson, of whom Boswell wrote:
Mr Elphinston talked of a new book that was much admired, and asked Dr Johnson if he had read it. JOHNSON: ‘I have looked into it.’ ‘What,’ said Elphinston, ‘have you not read it through?’ Johnson, offended at being thus pressed, and so obliged to own his cursory mode of reading, answered tartly: ‘No, Sir, do you read books through?’
While it was obviously Dr Johnson’s intention on this occasion to suggest that only a dullard or a pedant read books through (a busy mind perhaps having too many places to visit to tarry in one for very long), there is surely a suggestion on Boswell’s part that the great man was here chiefly attempting to extricate himself from embarrassment by aggression and bluster; it wouldn’t have been the first time.
It is probably fair enough to use the word “sneer” in connection with Lorentzen’s anecdote about Trump, and of course since the latter’s electoral college victory we have heard a lot about the alleged contempt of the educated and the elites for “ordinary” (that is to say uneducated) Americans and the unfortunate political consequence, allegedly, of that sector gleefully taking its revenge through electing a president in its own image. To the degree that such contempt exists it is of course a matter for concern, but is there not behind the sneer a hunch that Mr Trump’s response, like Dr Johnson’s, is actually an evasion and a perhaps well-founded suspicion that he does not (like a busy man who must cover many intellectual bases) read “only chapters” but in fact reads nothing at all?
How much one reads (as a proportion perhaps of the books one buys), how many books one abandons part-way through, how many classics one has in fact never read at all: these are all ticklish subjects for the intellectual and the literate. But in fact reading habits have changed very considerably over history and are likely to keep changing. In a recent essay in the Dublin Review of Books on the history of the book, Enda O’Doherty wrote:
The historian Rolf Engelsing has argued, based on his research in northern and central Germany, for the occurrence in the eighteenth century of what he calls a reading revolution, a process which saw the replacement of an intensive and repetitive perusal of a small number of books ‑ perhaps primarily religious books, which may often have been read aloud to the family ‑ by a more extensive practice of reading, secular, individual and private, and in quest of novelty, information or distraction. As we have seen [through traditional learned sectors like clerics and lawyers thundering against the lower classes reading], this new “mania for reading” was not always welcomed, but opposition to it – or scepticism about it – did not always come just from the usual suspects. As the American book historian Robert Darnton has shown in his study of the correspondence of the French Protestant book buyer Jean Ranson of La Rochelle (an “ordinary” reader, in Darnton’s view), Jean-Jacques Rousseau offered his followers, of whom Ranson was one, an alternative view of how to read. In contrast to the practice of people of society (gens de société), who it was alleged valued books and the ideas they might contain merely as amusing novelties, to be processed as quickly as possible before moving on to others (“Have you read X? Have you read Y? Oh, you must, you must!” Plus ça change …) Rousseau offered, in particular in his public defence of his novel La Nouvelle Héloïse, a model of reading which involved a communion between two idealised solitary entities – the writer and the reader: “When one lives quietly, since one is not in a rush to read in order to show off what one has read, one opts less for variety and more for deliberation; and since one’s reading is not constantly seeking an echo from elsewhere it has the much greater effect on oneself.” And so, in 1781, we see the very Rousseauist Jean Ranson writing to his Swiss bookseller correspondent Samuel-Frédéric Ostervald, asking him to send him fewer periodicals since they rob him of the time he should be devoting to “good reading”: “far from increasing the number of these I have in my house I am doing my best to reduce them”. (In a separate essay Darnton, following the historian Kevin Sharpe, poses another interesting binary opposition to add to that of intensive/extensive: early modern readers, he writes, read “segmentally, by concentrating on small chunks of text and jumping from book to book, rather than sequentially, as readers did a century later, when the rise of the novel encouraged the habit of perusing books from cover to cover”.)
To summarise (and of course oversimplify), people at first tended to read, and read from, a small number of books, which they would peruse over and over again. At a later stage in literary culture, books began to feature strongly in the affairs of the fashionable world, and to become “sensations” and “must-reads”. And people have long had a tendency to plunder (non-fiction) books for what they are seeking, not necessarily having either the time or the patience or the interest to bear with them to the end. The idea that we must stick with the book out of duty or to “see what happens” may derive principally from the emergence of the novel as a popular form of reading, that is not before the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
So perhaps I – and you if you are not Stakhanovite in your reading habits – should not feel quite so guilty about the piles of books on the floor around the armchair, many with bookmarks signalling how far (not so far really) we have got – or possibly are ever very likely to get. I’m afraid I still find it hard to believe, however, that Donald Trump reads an awful lot of chapters.
Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, was published in October. Selling in the shops at €25, it is also available to order online at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.
One piece featured in Space to Think is this blog post on Jane Austen and the excitement and attractions, in her fiction and her life, of the ball:
John Mullan, author of the splendid What Matters in Jane Austen, writes in The Guardian (May 4th) on the significance in her novels of dancing and balls in a piece written to link to a forthcoming BBC2 programme, Pride And Prejudice: Having a Ball.
“The ball,” he writes, “was the occasion for a couple to perform together in front of others. It was their opportunity for physical intimacy.” These things of course being relative: “They could not clinch each other or even touch each other’s flesh, yet they were brought closer than they could be on any other occasion.”
Of course the dance has long been a metaphor for sexual coupling, and not just the act itself but, in its elaborate rituals, its comings and goings, approaches and withdrawals, ins and outs, the prelude to the act (though of course at the time one doesn’t quite know, one cannot be quite sure, that one is engaged in the prelude to anything).
Miss Austen was a great believer in what she calls “the felicities of rapid motion”. The main purpose of the dance, of course, was to pair off, not just for the evening ‑ still less for a quick snog round the back of the coachhouse ‑ but for life. This Jane did not succeed in doing, but that was down to bad luck rather than any lack of inclination. Still, as she was to find, if you are not to be a full participant in the business of courting, and marrying, and mothering, there are always the pleasures of the observer, and some of them can be enjoyed at the ball too. The twenty-four-year-old Jane wrote thus to her sister Cassandra:
I believe I drank too much wine last night at Hurstbourne; I know not how else to account for the shaking of my hand today … There were only twelve dances, of which I danced nine, & was merely prevented from dancing the rest by the want of a partner …There were very few Beauties, and such as there were, were not very handsome. Miss Iremonger did not look well, & Mrs Blount was the only one much admired. She appeared exactly as she did in September, with the same broad face, diamond bandeau, white shoes, pink husband, & fat neck … Mrs Warren, I was constrained to think a very fine young woman, which I regret. She has got rid of some part of her child, & danced away with great activity, looking by no means very large. Her husband is ugly enough; uglier even than his cousin John; but he does not look so very old. The Miss Maitlands are both prettyish … with brown skins, large dark eyes, & a good deal of nose. – The General has got the Gout, and Mrs Maitland the Jaundice. Miss Debary, Susan & Sally … made their appearance, & I was as civil to them as their bad breath would allow me.