–Charles Darwin, from a letter to a young scientist.
I can’t think of a more unassuming, appealing genius than Darwin, who retreated from the world physically but engaged in vigorous correspondence. He was humble about his workhorse brain compared to the brilliance of friends like Robert Huxley, and forever anxious for approval, whether for his table manners or for _The Origin of Species_. His love for his children, his wife, and his friends glows from his letters and was evidently reciprocated. But it is Darwin the reader of whom I am fondest. “He read,” says his biographer Irvine in Apes, Angels, and Victorians, “not to be critical, but to be entertained, agreed with, stimulated to feeling.”
Passing much of his intellectual life on a sofa, he believed, with an almost missionary strenuousness, in easy and comfortable reading. At times he found every unnecessary movement, and even the weight of a book, intolerable. His remedy was surgery on the book. With a ruthless, unbibliophile hand he dismembered heavy and dignified tomes in order to read them in light and manageable sections. Even Lyell’s _Elements of Geology_ was not exempt. “With great boldness,” he coolly informed its author, “[I] cut it in two pieces, and took it out of its cover.”
Darwin read the morning news–as he read world history–en pantoufles, without much attempt at analysis and criticism. In fact he found it difficult to be critical of anything:
“I have no great quicknesss of apprehension or wit which is so remarkable in some clever men, for instance, Huxley. I am therefore a poor critic: a paper or a book, when first read generally excites my admiration, and it is only after considerable reflection that I perceive the weak points. My power to follow a long and purely abstract train of thought is very limited; and therefore I could never have succeeded with metaphysics or mathematics.”
It’s comforting to share a weakness with a genius. I read widely, but find it difficult to articulate why a particular book is good or bad, despite a degree in literature. I drop books I don’t like rather than examining why, for example, novels by Cormac McCarthy or Margaret Atwood annoy me. Otherwise I’m willing to jump into whatever world the author creates. The books I read hold unexpected conversations with one another and I listen in with delight, but rarely debate. At college I struggled with literary theory, though I turned out dutiful drivel like “The Haemosexual Subtext in _Dr Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde_ ” on demand. Intellectually, I grasped (at least at the time) structuralism, post-structuralism, feminist theory, New Historicism, and all the rest. Practically, they seemed (at best) like tools for writing essays, not tools for reading. I could never learn to read with critical distance, and the only tools I wanted were a good lamp, a notebook, and a glass of wine. And perhaps a footstool.
2 thoughts on “Darwin on Reading”
Best essay on reading I’ve read comes by way of Vladimir Nabokov, the Intro to ‘Lectures on Literature’. If for some reason you haven’t come across it – or even if you’re not a Nabokov fan – try and find it. The lectures are marvelous as well, but the intro is sublime. That and Italo Calvino’s ‘Six Memos for the Next Millennium’. Nice to see you’ll toss aside something others might suggest you ‘ought’ to read. Atwood is like a bowl of Red River Cereal. Oh wait a minute, you like that stuff.
Your recent posts about the outdoorsy life keeps reminding me of Thoreau’s “Walden”. If you haven’t read it, I’d recommend checking it out.
And once again, I love reading your blog. Its entertaining and inspiring. Keep up the good work!
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