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Wednesday, July 17, 2019

READING: ENOUGH FOR A LIFETIME


Guest Post


By Fraser Sutherland

I taught myself to read before a school taught me the alphabet. This happens to children more often than one might think so I make no special claim to have been some kind of autodidactic prodigy. From a very early age reading became a way of life; it was in fact another way to live. Apart from helping my father milk Jerseys and shovel manure on the farm, and helping my mother set the table and look after my crippled brother, I was a solitary child. But someone who reads a lot is never truly solitary. A book is always company.

Only in recent years have I come to realize just how much reading has dominated my life.  I married someone, a children’s librarian, who read even more than I did though, unlike me, she had a penchant for rereading her favourites. For her, reading, like eating or sleep, was one of the essential functions.  Ultimately it did not save her from suicidal despair, but on many occasions it’s saved me. To read is to enter a parallel world in which, as an absorbed onlooker, one is always welcome.

When I told someone I wanted to compile a list of books that in my lifetime had impressed me in some way he said I’d do better to list really  bad books, giving them the equivalent of a skull-and-crossbones poison symbol. Some books haven’t just been tedious, they’ve made me want to do physical damage to them, like the time an Andy Warhol film, Chelsea Girls, once made me want to rush up and stab the screen. Overwriting or logorrhea, as in John Cowper Powys’s swollen novel Wolf Solent will do it.  One hazard of travelling is to be trapped without suitable reading matter, and it’s almost as bad to be trapped with execrable reading matter.  I still remember an overnight ferry trip I took from Barcelona to Palma, Majorca  in which the only thing at hand to read was Jack London’s dreadful novel Martin Eden.  Nightmarish.

Realizing how reading has consumed so much of  my life, I embarked on the dusty, laborious task of listing all the books that have in some way been meaningful to me. It’s part of my ongoing project to make  sense of my life.  Surely reading all those books, all those days and weeks and months chasing letters of the alphabet across a page, hasn’t been a waste of time. Surely. Now, to slide one’s eyes down the rows of the spreadsheet I set up for the titles of notable books,  makes me envious of the writers who were famous during their lifetimes. True, most didn’t enjoy the celebrity. A few  got rich, but riches brings problems too.

Typically I voluntarily read between 120 and 150 books a year, two or three books a week, and have maintained that pace for many years.  Most have come from a public library. Toronto’s public library system is so good that alone is enough of a reason to live in the city. I record the author and title at the back of my daybook (I won’t dignify it by calling it a diary.) Only a few are rare ones that I think deserve rereading or somehow belong to the permanent furniture of my mind. Miguel de Unamuno’s The Tragic Sense of Life, for example. Or Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

Titles can also come from the legacy lists of university English courses I took  in my early 20s, or at least the ones that stuck. I’m happy to omit Joseph Conrad’s dreary Nostromo and Henry James’s baroquely affected  The Ambassadors maybe I’d feel differently if I read them now, but I don’t think so. I have a weakness for diaries and memoirs. Titles can also come from  lists that I seemingly made for the sheer joy of making lists. I follow up book reviewsthere can never be enough book reviewsand other readers’ recommendations. They give me a book, I read it for better or worse. Skimming and scanning used-and-antiquarian bookshops, fund-raising or charity book sales, books spread out on a newspaper or in cartons on a sidewalk all are resources.  I’ve read almost all of Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark,  Anthony Powell, Ernest Hemingway, and my longstanding American friend Elizabeth Spencer.  I’ve extensively read far too many poets to mention but their number certainly includes Sylvia Plath and Philip Larkin.

Yet there’s always a chance I will find something invaluable that I haven’t read, such as another Donald E. Westlake novel starring Dortmunder, his accident-prone thief, or a P.G. Wodehouse dealing with Lord Emsworth and his adored prizewinning pig the Empress of Blandings. Or maybe a similar comic triumph such as the Grossmith brothers’ Diary of  a Nobody. I know I will never find another Wind in the Willows, which is unique. To my childhood mind it was the greatest book ever written or illustrated. Kenneth Grahame wrote it, Ernest Shepard did the illustrations.

I’ve neglected to mention one vital source of authors and titles for my lifetime spreadsheet, which now numbers about 3,200 titles, and growing by the week. I refer to books already on my shelves.  After all, they wouldn’t be on my shelves if I hadn’t already favoured them. It’s a motley assortment. It includes not just masterpieces, far from it, but books that have some geographical or generational connection with me, say, the Rev. J P. MacPhie’s Pictonians at Home and Abroad (1914), a compendium of local boys from Pictou County, Nova Scotia where I come from who made good.  Sutherlands related to me were not among them.

On the shelves, too, are books whose titles or contents charmed me, such as Barbara Ann Kipfer’s 14,000 Ways To Be Happy: I keep trying to find useful pointers toward happiness in it. Or the books have a vocational link: dictionaries, reference works, or other books I consulted, edited, or contributed to. I have an 1821 edition of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, though I can’t say I’ve used it much.  Cookbooks are found in my kitchen, logically enough. History, philosophy, psychology, and general nonfiction populate the dining room, novels the living room, reference books and biography the office, poetry and crime fiction the bedroom. No books in the bathroom.

I close with a quotation taken from, fittingly, a book, Maggie Ferguson’s fine biography of that wonderful Orkney writer, George Mackay Brown.  I like to think the sentiment applies to me. Ferguson: “The biography of an artist, George once wrote, is really a pattern of those experiences and images that enter deeply into his consciousness and set the rhythm and tone of his work.”

Books are both experiences and images.



  • Fraser Sutherland is a poet, editor, and lexicographer who lives in Toronto. The most recent of his 17 books is the poetry collection The Philosophy of As If.

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