Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Reading Habits

The appearance today of the first volume of a new edition of Boswell’s Johnson, edited by Augustine Birrell, reminds me once again that I have read but little of that work. Does there, I wonder, exist a being who has read all, or approximately all, that the person of average culture s supposed to have read, and that not to have read is a social sin? If such a being does exist, surely he is an old, a very old man, who has read steadily that which he ought to have read 16 hours a day, from early infancy. I cannot recall a single author of whom I have read everything  - even of Jane Austen. I have never seen Susan and The Watsons, one of which I have been told is superlatively good. Then there are large tracts of Shakespeare, Bacon, Spenser, nearly all Chaucer, Congreve Dryden, Pope, Swift, Sterne, Johnson, Scott, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, Edgeworth, Ferrier, Lamb, Leigh Hunt, Wordsworth (nearly all), Tennyson, Swinburne, the Brontës, George Eliot, W. Morris, George Meredith, Thomas Hardy, Savage Landor, Thackeray, Carlyle – in fact very classical and most good modern authors, which I have never even overlooked. A list of the masterpieces I have not read would make a volume. With only one author can I call myself familiar, Jane Austen. With Keats and Stevenson I have an acquaintance. So far of English.  Of foreign authors I am familiar with Maupassant and the Goncourts. I have yet to finish Don Quixote.
   Nevertheless I cannot accuse myself of default. I have been extremely fond of reading ever since I was 20, and since I was 20 I have read practically nothing (except professionally, as a literary critic) but what was ‘right’. My leisure has been  moderate, my desire strong and steady, my taste selection certainly above the average, and yet in 10 years I seem scarcely to have made an impression upon the intolerable multitude of volumes which ‘everyone is supposed to have read’.
Journals of Arnold Bennett - Thursday, October 15th 1896

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