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Reading is Autobiographical

“The whole secret of life is to be interested in one thing profoundly and a thousand other things well.”

It happens this way, that I’ll pick up some random quote such as the one above, plucked from a James Clear newsletter, and immediately I feel compelled to hunt down the source. In this case Hugh Walpole’s Reading: An Essay. Short enough to devour in a few quick bites, I blew through his essay in no time at all. I suppose it was inevitable, I’ve heard about this short essay for years, but never got around to it… until I read the quote above.

Written in 1929, the essay references “The War” frequently, and I shudder to know what he didn’t know about the world to come over the next 12 years. There would soon be another war. Walpole would pass away in 1941, well before the outcome was certain. A discretely gay man in a time when discretion was required, he never had children and turned his energy into a prolific writing career. Reading: An Essay is a love letter to his favorite pastime, and I found myself plucking quote-after-quote from it. I’m sure there are plenty I missed, and perhaps I’ll read it again sometime soon. But who wants to get everything out of an essay on the first go-around anyway? With reading, Walpole is a kindred spirit from a hundred years ago. He capitalizes “Reading” as if it were a person or a sacred subject, because of course it was to him. And in his reverence for the topic, the essay felt like a quiet conversation with a friend. So here are a few gems from this short essay:

“I believe, with the pleasures of Reading it can be nothing if it is not autobiographical, for the only certain thing about Reading is that it is personal first, personal second, and personal all the time, and Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Divina Comedia may be the twin dominating peaks of a glorious range, but they are nothing to you whatsoever if you happen to be looking the other way.” – Hugh Walpole, Reading: An Essay

“For the rest of my days there should be always at my hand a land of escape and enchantment.”

“Reading must be a personal adventure or the salt goes out of it.”

“Libraries should be penetrated with the love of books, so that when you enter a room where the books are the air is warm with a kind of delicious humanity, and the books have been always so affectionately treated that, like the right kind of dog, they know no fear and yet have their fitting dignity.”

“I believe that circumstances have altered very little, and that a novel to be absorbing has to have precisely the two ingredients that it had a hundred years ago, a narrative gift (and it doesn’t matter whether the narrative is about a tea party or a murder trial) and the creation of living characters.”

“There is a kind of luxury in reading which is perhaps the best thing in the world; it is to be captured only, I think, through the old books, books that you know so well that they step out and meet you, take you by the arm and whisper in your ear: ‘Now lie back and talk to us, and then we will in turn tell you a thing or two. There’s no need to be clever this evening, we don’t want you to shine, we’ll have an hour or two together so pleasant that you’ll scarcely know we’re here.'”

All of this talk of libraries and Reading makes me want to immerse myself in a good book. The house is still quiet, the sun hasn’t risen yet on this cold morning, and there’s time for another mug of coffee and a few chapters before the frenzied swirl of activity begins. If you’ll excuse me…

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