Darwin on Reading

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.

Do not despair about your style; your letters are excellently written, your scientific style is a little too ambitious. I never study style; all that I do is to try to get the subject as clear as I can in my own head, and express it in the commonest language which occurs to me. But I generally have to think a good deal before the simplest arrangement and words occur to me…

–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.”

Charles’s reading falls into two classes and was done in two postures. Strenuous or disagreeable scientific reading he got through late at night in his study. Because of his long legs he raised himself by putting cushions in the seat of his study chair; then, to neutralize the effect, he raised his feet onto a footstool. One is tempted to imagine him, in the course of a long German work, rising rather close to the ceiling. For all other reading, he lay on a sofa. Such reading consisted in lighter or more agreeable scientific works, travel books, history, and above all fiction. He held a low opinion of novels as works of art, yet he frequently blessed all novelists. “A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if a pretty woman all the better.”

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”

  1. 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.

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  2. 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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