Several people have recently asked me what I’m currently reading. This is embarrassing. The fact is, I’m at various points in a number of books – a rather large number…
I not only read books but I read about books, compulsively. That second category consists primarily of reviews, although there are other pitfalls for me. The New York Times Book Review has a weekly feature called “By the Book,” in which they ask an author about their preferences in reading material. A recent segment featured Tessa Hadley. She dove into the subject with zest, announcing right off the bat that she was at the moment reading The Wings of the Dove for her Henry James reading group. Imagine: a book club dedicated solely to the works of The Master! Oh, one wants to join up at once – at least, This One does. Classics being readily available for download at rock bottom prices – $1.99, $0.99, even $0.00! – I added a copy of The Wings of the Dove to my Kindle library. When, if ever, will it actually be read? I haven’t the slightest. But I love Henry James – truly I do. And this is a novel I’ve wanted to read for ages.
Tessa Hadley’s latest novel, simply entitled The Past, has been getting rave reviews. It dwells tantalizingly close to my bedside reading station, on my night table. Or rather, on one of my three night tables. These consist of an actual night table, an adjacent small square table, and an indispensable item of furniture called a clutter column. All are piled high with books, some from the library, others that I own.
Here’s what the clutter column looks like when first assembled: . Here’s mine, in its present incarnation: . To the right is the small square table, which is currently somewhat overburdened, as you can see. (Click twice on this picture and you can clearly make out individual titles.)
In recent years I’ve become increasingly interested in the life and works of Thomas De Quincey. De Quincey is one of those mercurial non-mainstream geniuses that Britain produces from time to time. The first piece I read by him was the essay, “On the Knocking at the Gate in MacBeth.” I’d recently seen the play at the Folger and so wanted to know what De Quincey had to say about it. In this essay, he takes a very specific scene from the play and analyzes it in such a way as to illuminate and bring to the forefront its full horror. By implication, the horror of all acts of murder are therein embodied. It is an immensely insightful, disturbing, and brilliant discourse.
Next, I read the famous/notorious “Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts,” as bravura a work of satire and black humor as you’ll ever encounter. It amazes me that it was published in 1827 (in Blackwood’s Magazine). An oft-quoted sentence therefrom:
Pleasant it is, no doubt, to drink tea with your sweetheart, but most disagreeable to find her bubbling in the tea-urn.
No sentimentalist he, by Jove!
And now we have Thomas De Quincey, accompanied by his devoted and dauntless daughter Emily, appearing as the lead character in a series of mysteries written by David Morrell. I very much enjoyed the first entry, Murder As a Fine Art, and am currently reading the second, Inspector of the Dead. (I’ll have more to say about the latter title in a subsequent post.)
Finally, along comes Murder by Candlelight by Michael Knox Beran. This book tells the story of a number of homicides committed in England in the early 1800s. Interwoven with these admittedly grim tales is commentary by some of the great literary lights of the period; namely, Thomas Carlyle and Thomas De Quincey:
The small, delicate man, with his courteous manners and soft, enchanting voice, was a curious bearer of the dark insights which were his specialty in trade; he seemed, at first sight, to be angelically innocent. He was “hardly above five feet,” Carlyle said, and “you would have taken him, by candlelight, for the beautifullest little child,” had there not “been a something, too, which said, ‘Eccovi— this child has been in hell.’”
It was true: the sensitive, retiring creature had been in hell. In his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, he described the horror of his drug-laden dreams. He was transported into lands of “vertical sunlight,” and suffered “mythological tortures” at the hands of unscrupulous priests. He ran into pagodas and was imprisoned in their secret chambers, or fixed upon their summits. He was the idol: he was the priest: he was worshipped: he was sacrificed. Yet If De Quincey was fascinated by experiences which, like opium nightmares and metropolitan murders, had the mark of the beast upon them, he was no less drawn to the aftermaths of these experiences, when life resumed its customary aspect. He recounted how, during an opium dream in which he was being pursued by a malignant crocodile, he suddenly awoke to the pure sunshine of the English day. It “was broad noon, and my children were standing, hand in hand, at my bedside, come to show me their coloured shoes, or new frocks, or to let me see them dressed for going out.” So awful, he said, was “the transition from the damned crocodile, and the other unutterable monsters and abortions of my dreams, to the sight of innocent human natures and of infancy, that, in the mighty and sudden revulsion of mind, I wept, and could not forbear it, as I kissed their faces.” Such experiences played a part in shaping a hell-scholarship unsurpassed of its kind…
(I can’t quite explain why Beran’s book has such a hold over me. I’m now reading it for the second time. I don’t pretend to an objective judgment, but I think it’s brilliant.)
I’ve kept in mind Robert Morrison’s biography since it came out in 2010. Luckily, the library still owns it – two copies, to be exact. It’s now in the house, somewhere…the clutter column, perhaps? Anyway, I made the mistake of reading the first few pages, and now of course, I want to keep going. did I mention I’m also reading De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater? This is from the blog at the Oxford University Press’s site:
In his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, first published in the London Magazine for September and October 1821, he transformed our perception of drugs. De Quincey invented recreational drug-taking, not because he was the first to swallow opiates for non-medical reasons (he was hardly that), but because he was the first to commemorate his drug experience in a compelling narrative that was consciously aimed at — and consumed by — a broad commercial audience. Further, in knitting together intellectualism, unconventionality, drugs, and the city, De Quincey mapped in the counter-cultural figure of the bohemian. He was also the first flâneur, high and anonymous, graceful and detached, strolling through crowded urban sprawls trying to decipher the spectacles, faces, and memories that reside there. Most strikingly, as the self-proclaimed “Pope” of “the true church on the subject of opium,” he initiated the tradition of the literature of intoxication with his portrait of the addict as a young man. De Quincey is the first modern artist, at once prophet and exile, riven by a drug that both inspired and eviscerated him.
So, how many of these titles are at present being actively consumed by me? I count four. And that, Dear Reader and Fellow Book Lover, is but the tip of the proverbial iceberg!
To be continued – sigh…