Summer reading

As a pretentious young viper, I would sometimes pick fights with my mother over what she was reading. I would examine some paperback she had set down, and pronounce it to be trash. She would agree, with the qualification that “light reading” was the more genteel expression. I cannot now remember what many of the books were, but the genre of detective fiction was well represented, and then-recent novels which could be located on bestseller lists. Sometimes it would be a pop “major author” — say, D. H. Lawrence in one of his repetitive attempts to write sentimental pornography on the virgin-and-gypsy theme. Once I congratulated her on attempting something translated from German. “Oh, it’s your father reading that. I don’t read books by foreigners.”

She had the habit of reading, formed early, and could often be found lost in a book. To her mind literature was meant for an escape: from nursing, housework, and raising difficult children. So if the book was arduous, it was also useless. “You can’t be serious all the time,” she would say, “you have to take a break from it sometimes.” To which I would reply, “But surely you can be serious some of the time.” For I wasn’t only a viper. I was also a little jackass.

It was the same with music. She came home once, to say she could hear the Bach fugue I was playing, two blocks down the street. Dropping groceries and rushing to turn it down, she then swivelled to confront me. “Why can’t you be a normal child, and listen to rock music!” (Her sister was a church organist back in Cape Breton; she actually knew a great deal about Bach, including how to introduce jazz syncopations, to fly by one’s tone-deaf Presbyterian minister.)

Needless to say, I regret most of my earlier selves. But I can still understand them. My campaign against the de-civilization of the West began a decade before I thought it did. The idea arrived ready-made, that one ought to indulge in “self-improvement.” From the moment I discovered there was such a thing as historical time (via Kipling), I was determined to perform an investigation. To this day, I am still trying to fill the holes, in my head, but also in my knowledge of times and places; trying to see things whole, as Augustine was doing in his City of God. (Now there’s a fine weighty volume.)

There is a young gentleman whom I shall call “Z.” — for that is his initial. He is a lawyer who would go far, were he not also a Catholic. The product of Ontario schools, he has become starkly aware that he was cheated of an education. He has wife and childers now, and little leisure, but in each free moment he tries to “fill his gaps.” Alas, like mine, there are gaps within his gaps, and so he flits like a butterfly through the extensive meadow. Donate some duplicate odd volume of a Loeb, and he grabs it lustily — as another key to how everything fits together, another door in the treasure vaults.

I applaud this form of idleness, which, I should mention, my mother graciously encouraged. This is “the higher environmentalism.” We can’t save the intellectual, any more than the biological environment by teaching the ignorant to protest. We can do so, however, by teaching them to love: the books, the music; the birds, and all Creation.

“The organs of recognition, without which no true reading is possible, are reverence and love. Knowledge cannot dispense with them, for it can grasp and analyze only what love takes possession of, and without love it is empty.” (Emil Staiger.)

Rejecting what is bad, fails. We must teach ourselves instead to seek the good, which exposes the bad of its own; or as Augustine reminds, not merely seek but find it.

And that which is loved is spontaneously protected.