A book lover’s musings.
Australian-British poet, essayist, critic, and memoirist James (Poetry Notebook: Reflections on the Intensity of Language, 2015, etc.) begins this book by disclosing his frail health. Diagnosed with leukemia in 2010, already suffering from emphysema, he “could hear the clock ticking, and I wondered whether it was worth reading anything both new and substantial, or even rereading something substantial that I already knew about.” Describing himself as “book crazy,” he did both, responding to his reading journey in brief, often witty and insightful, sometimes slight, essays. Recovering from pneumonia, he staved off boredom by rereading Conrad’s Lord Jim, a book he had once found uninteresting. His second reading only somewhat revised that view: the book offered “an international historical picture” but was “not quite enthralling enough” to earn his admiration. Nostromo, on the other hand, he deems “one of the greatest books I have ever read.” Also great are Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey novels, to which James became addicted after his daughter gave him Master and Commander. “She was like a drug dealer handing out a free sample,” he writes, and he was hooked. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises once made James envious; now, although still “enchanted” by Hemingway’s prose style, he finds the dialogue too repetitious and wonders if the book is “a thing for eternity.” V.S. Naipaul, according to James, is notable “for his fastidious scorn, not for his large heart”; Naipaul’s revelations about his colonial experience elicits memories of James’ youth in Australia and makes him realize “how complex it has all been, this birth, growth, and breaking up of an empire.”
“If I ever had a plaque,” James confesses, “I would like it to say: He loved the written word, and told the young.” Until the plaque is cast, this slim book will suffice.