Of books & men

Out of my charity, lest I confuse one sort with another, I try to arrange my enemies in three distinct groups: 1. psychotics (with that “cold look”), 2. neurotics (with that “haunted look”), and 3. common fools. This last group can pull a wide variety of faces. So can the first two, for that matter, but the eyes are the windowpanes of the soul. This is why I grant blind people a pass; but am deeply suspicious of those wearing sunglasses.

In email, it is often hard to tell one from another. This gives psychotics and neurotics a head start. In a combox, however, the answer is likely to suggest itself right away, and we learn that the proportion of the deranged in our society is even higher than we guessed on our last city stroll.

Among philosophers, Henri Bergson was no hero of mine, but he had his moments, and one of them was when he explained to a young visitor why he attended philosophical congresses.

“Sometimes,” Bergson said, “I have spent weeks, months, trying to master the sophisticated jargon and complicated system of one of my contemporaries. But one glance at his face and I know that I’ve been wasting my time.”

His visitor, the young T.E. Hulme, recommended his own method. It was to skip forward through a book to the last couple of pages. This is where the point of the exercise will be revealed, and if it is “the usual” — more sludge out of the long pipe — one may then omit reading all the previous pages.

My beloved Doctor Johnson, who resembled Hulme in size and tone, had similar methods for “tearing the heart out of a book,” while browsing in his friends’ libraries. It was he who when once asked for an opinion, said, “I’d rather praise the book than read it.”

Cast once as a generator of “Brief Notices,” I remembered him, and was able to write about twenty reasonably polite one-paragraph reviews of the latest academic blockbusters in the course of a lazy afternoon. Out of my ethical sense, I avoided repeating anything in the dust-cover blurbs. One must have principles. And like Mencken, I refused to review any book without an index. (This means avoiding novels.)

Note that an operation requiring ten minutes or less with a printed book, could take half-an-hour or more with a Kindle.

The purpose of short reviews is not to pass final judgement. It is instead to identify the sort of reader to which each work is addressed. Some books are written for psychopaths, some for neurotics, most for common fools. A tiny proportion might possibly repay a closer examination, and these may be removed to another pile, where they will be forgotten.

Perhaps I should amend that. In some cases the purpose of the squib is indeed to pass judgement. I think of Dorothy Parker’s useful 1928 review of The House at Pooh Corner, in the New Yorker magazine: “Tonstant Weader fwowed up.”

Or of Hulme’s more leisurely overview of A Free Man’s Worship, by Bertrand Russell:

“So extremely commonplace, and expressed in such a painful piece of false and sickly rhetoric, that I have not patience to deal with it here.”

But whether one is dealing with books or men, concealment is a nuisance. One really needs to look at a face when communicating, with friend or foe. And words alone, without even the inflection of a voice, are a lot of trouble.