Tuesday, February 19, 2013


Essays, then. I’ve accumulated a small library of them, and thought it was time to get stuck in. Most of the books are pretty compact: George Eliot’s and Joseph Addison’s are on what I find is called ‘Bible paper’, so they are thinner from the side than most paperbacks, as well as being shorter and thinner from the front, too (belying their alarming six and seven hundred page tallies). What is the best way to read books like this? They are pocket volumes, with a permanence about them: they are companions to take on journeys, maybe they are so small because they are unlikely to be the only book you do take. Like an actual Bible, for those that are so inclined, they can be dipped into for moral instruction, but also for diversion, entertainment, a quick fix of thoughtful prose to set you up for the day, or to wind you down from its shrill pitch. If diaries are useful to keep mental cogs turning, Addison’s Spectator pieces have a similar intent: like a diary someone is writing for you, they are enough to refresh and pull focus, without requiring a big investment of time. They inform and entertain, like a BBC which knows the (Greek and Roman) classics. They even allow for feedback: the essays are peppered with letters from readers, some real, some invented. ‘The Will of a Virtuoso’, previously quoted from a footnote in Hazlitt’s Table Talk is here too, and is, I hope, a fake. Another one I liked was a response from one Martha Tempest to Addison’s translation of Simonides’ categorisation of women’s character types, as swine, foxes, dogs, earth, the sea, donkeys, cats, mares, apes and bees:

SIR — Ever since your Spectator of Tuesday came into our family, my husband is pleased to call me his Oceana, because the foolish old poet that you have translated says, that the souls of some women are made of sea-water. This, it seems, has encouraged my sauce-box to be witty upon me. When I am angry, he cries, ‘Pr’ythee, my dear, be calm’; when I chide one of my servants, ‘Pr’ythee, child, do not bluster.’ (Joseph Addison, Essays, p. 324)

Not wanting to read too much Addison all at once, I’ve started on the Penguin collection of George Orwell’s essays, too, and reading today his excellent and provocative thoughts on Charles Dickens I came across an example of Dickens’ tendency to ornament his prose to saturation and beyond which seemed familiar. Orwell recalls reading this Greek story at school:

A certain Thracian, renowned for his obstinacy, was warned by his physician that if he drank a flagon of wine it would kill him. The Thracian thereupon drank the flagon of wine and immediately jumped off the house-top and perished. ‘For,’ said he, ‘In this way I shall prove that the wine did not kill me.’

As the Greek tells it, that is the whole story — about six lines. As Sam Weller tells it, it takes round about a thousand words. (George Orwell, Essays, p.70)

That is another extract I couldn’t resist typing out and putting on the internet when I read The Pickwick Papers a while back — isn’t it glorious?

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