Sunday, June 30, 2013

Robertson Davies on Newspaper Clippings

We—perhaps I should say: "I"—read for many reasons. Mostly, I read for information, for ideas, intellectual stimulation, ideas, "growth" or self-improvement, and, for enjoyment and entertainment. The best reading combines most of these. Recently, I bought Robertson Davies' The Merry Heart. Reflections on Reading, Writing, and the World of Books (New York: Viking, 1996). To say that I was disappointed would be saying too much. I was, however, somewhat underwhelmed. His Deptford Trilogy which forms an important part of my Canadian past, had made me expect (much) more. The book is not rich in ideas—old or new. I knew of his adherence to Jungian principles which he calls his "candle." I did not know that he had as much admiration for Ibsen who said he read only two things, the Bible and the Newspapers. Nor did I know that he subscribed so deeply to Nabokov's idea that a novelist is first of all only "an enchanter," but it figures.

The two chapters I expected most from are "Reading" and "Writing." They were also the parts out of which I got least. He rails against speed reading and enmity to intellectual elites, advocating slow reading and "verbalizing." His advice for reading "for pleasure" is
  • "read several books at once, and so keep on your table a book of poetry, as well as a novel, some essay, and perhaps a play or two" (226)
  • re-read often (228)
  • read slowly (233)
  • "read deeply rather than widely" (233)
All sound advice, but rather trite advice, nevertheless.

He is certainly correct when he claims in "Writing" that critics "invent categories, and then try to confine writers within these critical jails, talking of 'minimalism' and 'postmodernism' and 'magic realism' and a dozen others, as if these things had real existence and were not simply gases extracted by the critics from works of strong individuality" (346). Seems true enough. It's one of the reasons why I find literary criticism for the most part less than useful. But his invocation of Nabokov's shamanstvo is not very helpful either.Socrates already found that poets cannot explain where there gift comes from, but that they are just inspired without knowing by what.

One thing found informationally interesting was the following: "When I was a young man I read an excellent book by a French scholar in which he recommended that everybody should keep a dossier of newspaper clippings related to their principal subjects of interest; it was a way, he said, to become a modest expert on any subject you pleased and also to observe how quickly fashions in ideas changed. I began a newspaper file, and I have it still. It is now very bulky, and from time to time I dip into it to remind myself of the past" (357). His subjects: Crime, Psychiatry, Religion, Pornography, Medicine, Art, Music, Grotesqueries [?] and Strange Manifestations of the Holy Spirit—in that order.

I never kept such a file. Nor do I read newspapers as assiduously as he seems to have done (having started out as a newspaper man himself—as he never tires to remind us. This is not to deny that some information taken from newspapers has crept into my notes.But I trust them far less than he seems to.

Perhaps the poverty of ideas I perceived in his essays has to do with his preoccupation with the "fashions in ideas" as observed in newspapers. But perhaps it is also that he really was more of a shamanstvo than a thinker.

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