A Common Reader - An Essay by Bill Morelock
February 27, 2012
St. Paul, Minn. —
I'd like you to meet someone. He's a vulnerable fellow, rather too open to the joys and despairs of deep remembering. His life, therefore, is disordered but rich; evocative but dangerously reflective. He gets along, he thinks too well, he cuts corners, he sighs great sighs. Wisteria blooms and withers while he gouges his summer with indolent harrow thrusts. He regrets memory's hold on him, yet memory, a vast overgrown archive, secrets vital news. He has a hunger there to lose himself, and a trough of youth to do it in. The luxuriant foliage thins with the approach of life's winter, clarity trumps extremes and, maybe, awareness begins.
His name? Well, could it be yours? Or mine. Or, maybe, Hamlet, allowed a middle age. Because we are, when most at home with our best minds, Hamlet's own cousins. We are, when most human, most skeptical, most apperceptive of all life's kaleidoscopic facets, when least willing to jump and shout for a mania or against an outrage, William Shakespeare's creations.
A thousand pardons and indulgences, while this commonest of readers makes his commonest of discoveries. Shakespeare? Known, kneaded, risen and baked. Old news. But essentials often disappear as they become fixtures. They require as often not re-examination (a great self-flattery), but discovery. I'm finally beginning to appreciate, with my life's winter no longer part of the extended forecast, how good the bread is. And so with all the sweet stumbling sincerity of the weathered neophyte, I wonder at the existence of the sun and the moon and the seven seas; marvel at the existence of a sixteenth century poet-playwright-entrepreneurial social climbing professional skeptic who gave us a miraculous gallery of characters who got completely away from him to become, within the walls of Elsinore or over sack and a roast mutton leg at the Boar's Head, or bemusedly falling in love with a wrestler in the forest of Arden, "free artists in themselves."
That's how Hegel (quoted by Harold Bloom in his Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human) described Hamlet and Falstaff and Rosalind, virtuosos of human-ness. I've never been exactly sure who the "common reader" is, but she seems to be someone whose endangered existence is mourned or decried by writers of serious books; so paradoxically, what a common reader reads is not common at all.
Bloom, one of these conservationists, is ever controversial, a critic/curmudgeon who zestfully insults large bands of fellow scholars even as he attracts the interested non-specialist who wants to find in their reading a little magic and miracle without resorting to pre-adolescent sorcerers or Elvish runes. Then again you can read Bloom as a kind of Gandalf for text-questing Hobbits, guiding us to note the good stuff in the good stuff, whether it's Shakespeare or Cervantes or Jane Austen or Italo Calvino. For Bloom, Hamlet's famous indecision wasn't just the cause of a downfall but part of his glory as well, an effect of a vast intelligence. Rosalind, like most of the women in Shakespeare, was better than her man, lived herself more fully than anyone save perhaps Sir John Falstaff. He, an aging, doomed, larcenous, sodden old soldier, is nevertheless unconquerable, irrepressibly testifying "Give me life," and making rude gestures at honor and his prince.
Information fuels and bombards us. The now indispensable tools we use to process that information demand votive offerings of ourselves; reasonable at every point, but so inexorable that we're obliged over time to hand over big chunks of our imaginations. If we had the time or perspective to notice, we might be horrified.
To read, then, a Shakespeare play or the history of the Byzantine Empire simply because you want to, amounts to an act of rare resistance against accepting what is immediately and easily available. That tendency or inclination or habit or (dare we call it?) skill, insulates us in rather profound ways from the more corrosive effects of these jealous, autocratic tools.
Is an element of retreat required to make such reading central to an imagination? When I was a student at Washington State University an eon ago, I lived for a short time on Michigan Street, close to campus. Every night I walked by a house where a man sat in a big stuffed chair next to the window, reading under a close lamp. This was Murray Bundy, near eighty, retired English professor and namesake of the Department's reading room. A monastic sort of devotion, I thought, and I wondered what places he had access to that I, desultory and distracted (then and always), would never know. In my one conversation with him in his front yard he managed to slip in an apt aphorism (Thoreau?) on the question before us here: "Read not the Times; read the Eternities."
The quicksilver marvels of our tools and toys, trafficking in light, creating and satisfying hungers simultaneously, give us wings and myriad worlds. Yet, as the creations of a gargantuan commercial assault on our attentions and imaginations, they also have a curious density about them. Ultralight tablets and smart phones, as symbols, want to fall to the very center of the earth.
At the same time, that earthbound, clothbound relic has become, by remaining itself, a reliable vehicle — shabby as it may seem around the flanks — for escaping the projectiles of the market, the cooings of the upgrade. It takes a certain amount of energy to overcome inertia (more than we often think we can muster), but once into orbit glimpses of something like freedom present themselves when you become aware that, absent a processor, it's merely your mind operating ecstatically at near light speed.