My first — and later, and late — impression of books has been that they are (both collectively and individually) too big for me. My parents were proud to join the new mid-century middle class, and they installed bookshelves in the old farmhouse where they raised their family. The shelves were just four pine planks on metal brackets, but the structure seemed towering to me as a toddler. The National Geographic volume on the ancient world that I had pulled off the bottom shelf sprawled beyond my lap as I sat on the floor with it.
There was the same sort of disproportion when my bulky parents read aloud to us on the couch. The couch itself was big — my brother and sister and I would slouch up against the front of it while communing among ourselves, or climb it like playground equipment. I don’t think we even had a TV at this stage; when we did, it sat in a distant, comfortless corner. The grand occasion for just perching on the couch was the hearing of literature from a looming adult or two.
We weren’t like the children in movies who have their own favorite books and enforce the bedside reading of them as a condition of going to sleep. Had this arrangement ever been available, I might have been horrified at my parents’ undignified flexibility; or I might have seized on it in glee and started on a completely different life.
As it was, I was treated to literature of my parents’ choice, and delivered according to their own sense of humor and drama. They were James Thurber fans and didn’t see any reason to be bored with bright-eyed puppies and kitties when they could read us — maybe they thought it was close enough — his New Yorker blend of nursery fare and Dashiell Hammett, “The White Rabbit Caper,” which ends thus:
“Is she pretty?” asked Lura Fox.
“Daphne? Quite a dish,” said Fred Fox, “but I prefer my rabbits stewed, and I’m afraid little Daphne is going to fry.” . . .
Lura Fox suddenly burst into tears. “She was so soft, and warm, and cuddly, Fred,” she wailed.
Fred filled a glass with rye, drank it slowly, set down the glass, and sighed grimly. “Sour racket,” he said.
It was a symphony to my ears, down to the cheap, excessive adverbs. The miracle of language flowed from on high, in unforgettable cadences throughout Thurber’s work: “While he was not dumber than an ox he was not any smarter”; “‘Gugh,’ gasped Briggs, floundering in his camphor”; and, in the scene of the warring couple observed through a window: “Their apartment, before they began to take it apart, had been quietly and tastefully arranged, but it was a little hard to believe this now, as he stood there by the fireplace, using an andiron to bat back the Royal Doulton figurines she was curving at him from her strongly entrenched position behind the davenport.”
It was not harder to convince me that this dispensation — me: little, weak, stupid, unprincipled; culture: big, strong, wise, good — was providential than to make me eat chicken and dumplings and succotash and homemade pie without any great concern for the Froot Loops I occasionally saw advertised.
It wasn’t that my parents read no children’s books to us; but they were finicky, and nearly everything was either tested by time (such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses) or seasoned with irony and horror (such as Roald Dahl’s works). My grandmother loved books too, and was politically oblivious: She read us Kipling’s Just So Stories and The Jungle Book under the sprawling apple tree in her yard.
When I passed on to my own choices, in the school library, or in the big new concrete receptacle of the county library in town, unfocused curiosity and trashy-mindedness did play roles in my reading, particularly during adolescence. Public libraries are where everything gets dumped by donation, and a high wave of the prescriptive and breathless books of the Fifties reached the shelves around the time I did. I remember a guide to better posture called “Your Carriage, Madame!” and a socialite’s Cosmopolitan Cat, in which she lamented that her accessory Siamese prevented her from wearing dark colors around Europe.
But my early experience of books had schooled me to waste time with (I hope) not too much damage to my judgment. The scale I trusted continued to be me, laughably tiny; the channels through which what was worthwhile came to me, huge; the ultimate source of what was worthwhile, unthinkably enormous, solid, and eternal. I was able not only to shrug off teen novellas and glom on to Virginia Woolf, but also to sense that things out yonder, beyond my view, were even more glorious. I found classics professors at the local university to teach me the languages of Vergil and Homer. I sat mesmerized in the university library, in a top-floor cubicle, chewing through grammar like a hamster contentedly shredding newspaper in the hut at the end of a high tunnel in a deluxe Habitrail cage.
This was the era when creative writing was spreading out from Iowa, and I had some early exposure to the movement. But I was horrified when invited to rely on mighty creative forces isolated in myself, or to revel in the self-expressive possibilities of right here and right now. A couple of decades later, in a career slough, I tried to teach creative writing myself, then to get a degree in it. I felt like a sociopath.
In the meantime, I studied classics at Harvard, which was quite a different experience. Richard Thomas, one of my dissertation advisers, happened to be on the library committee, and he told me that Widener Library, that Rhodes Colossus of learning, acquired more or less every scholarly and literary book that was published. Richard complained that even that behemoth building was inadequate to the inflow, which meant that books were being warehoused in large numbers.
I gloated to hear it. I was a raiding mouse, a tiny bat foraging in neglected aisles. You could get anything in and through Widener, only occasionally having to seek outside the university through interlibrary loan. I got the great classicist D. S. Raven’s collection of brilliant goofs, Poetastery and Pastiche, which is out of print and rare, and I memorized big hunks of it. Here’s some of one item, A. E. Housman’s “Jack and Jill” in the mode of Pope or Johnson:
Now down the slope, their task accomplished, they
The liquid plunder of the pump convey,
And seek the level sward; incautious pair!
Too soon, alas, too soon shall ye be there. . . .
The prudent fair, of equilibrium vain,
Views, as he falls, the rotatory swain.
I’m now an essayist and translator. In one respect, my extreme littleness couldn’t last. Just as people naturally gain weight with age (I’m now about the size of either parent on that couch), they gain insight, and it takes up more space. But I want, as far as possible, to keep reading like a child, beneath the eagle’s wings, on the son of God’s lap, a happy nothing in the face of everything. It is too wonderful for me.
This article appears as “Literature from On High” in the September 30, 2019, print edition of National Review.