Alex Massie

Books do furnish the mind, but...

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Wise old man* says:

In the forthcoming volume of his Smoking Diaries (not out till April, but I’ve been reading a proof copy) my old friend Simon Gray makes a brave admission. Well, he makes a number of these, but this particular one struck me. ‘I haven’t read him [Henry James] for years. I don’t believe I have the powers of concentration any more, at least for the late ones, The Golden Bowl, The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors.’ ‘Something in that’ was my immediate response, though actually I haven’t read The Ambassadors since I was 17, and persuaded myself, though frequently bored, that it was a masterpiece. Now all I remember is Strether’s advice ‘Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to’; and this only because I have seen it quoted. Interesting advice, good even, though it all depends on what you mean by ‘living’. Some might say that James himself didn’t do much of it; others that he didn’t need to, outwardly, living so intensely in mind and imagination. But that is matter for another day. Where was I? Ah yes, powers of concentration . . .

They do slacken as you get older, partly no doubt because of a loss of intellectual vitality, partly because they have been corrupted by too much easy reading, especially of newspapers. This leads you to skip and skim. It becomes more difficult to read at the pace that an author demands, word by word, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence, instead of taking in whole paragraphs at a gulp. This applies especially to poetry. I find I can read this now only by mouthing the words, as the ancients did.

It’s easy to excuse yourself, to remember that Scott recommended ‘the laudable practice of skipping’ and that Dr Johnson incredulously, perhaps scornfully, asked Boswell, ‘Sir, do you read books through?’ Clearly he often didn’t do so himself, years of hack-writing in Grub Street having taught him the craft of gutting a book...

And if newspapers corrupt the powers of concentration required to read books properly, what the hell will blogs and the internets do?

*Sorry. Poor in-joke, really.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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