Bed reading

Posted: Jan 09, 2007 9:01 PM

The sickbed serves to distract attention, but it is unsafe to assume as a corollary that such distraction is enjoyable or even productive. It may have lessened, for a few days, preoccupation with street warfare in Baghdad, but beware the seductions of innocent diversion. But hang on, because there is a happy ending here, only a few paragraphs away.

Many years ago, just graduated from college, just married, I purchased a shelf-load of newly printed "classics" -- to be read sometime, somewhere, or left to grandchildren to read. Such books rest, of course, in the uppermost reach of one's library, but I tipped one out en route to the hospital last month and found myself reading "The American" by Henry James.

It is 488 pages long, and it may be the single most boring book ever published. It is at least the single most venerated bad book ever published. The Internet will give you not only reviews of the book, but also the entire novel, chapter after chapter, word for word.

Now Henry James (1843-1916), novelist, essayist, critic, is captivating when describing people and situations. I wrote about his travel books, a dozen years ago, that "you can close your eyes and open either volume at any page and find yourself reading prose so resplendent it will sweep you off your feet. Yet after a while, after a long while, you will recognize that you do, really, have to come down to earth because there are so many other things to do. And besides, if you stay with him for too long, in that engrossing, scented, colored, brilliant, absorbing world, you feel strung out, feel something like hanging moss."

On the matter of writing, and how to get it done, Richard Powers in The New York Times Book Review last week wrote an exalted essay in praise of dictation, made economically feasible in the modern world by speech-recognition devices. "I write these words from bed," Powers tells us, "under the covers with my knees up, my head propped and my three-pound tablet PC -- just a shade heavier than a hardcover -- resting in my lap, almost forgettable. I speak untethered, without a headset, into the slate's microphone array. The words appear as fast as I can speak."

One reads on, even if internally apprehensive at the prospect of a multiple increase in reading matter, and numb after completing "The American." "Not that efficiency has always been dictation's prime selling point," Powers writes. "In dictating his own last few baggy monsters, Henry James perfected such fluid elocution that, according to Edith Wharton, he couldn't even ask directions without releasing a torrent of 'explanatory ramifications.'"

Henry James! In his travel books James demonstrates his extraordinary powers of discrimination. Geneva suffers from "the want of humor in the local atmosphere, and the absence, as well, of that aesthetic character which is begotten of a generous view of life." OK. But what about the Swiss in general? They have, James found, "an insensibility to comeliness or purity of form -- a partiality to the clumsy, coarse, and prosaic, which one might almost interpret as a calculated offset to their great treasure of natural beauty, or at least as an instinctive protest of the national genius for frugality."

One or two mechanical points should be made here. One of them is that James' "The American," lionized in American literary history, was written in 1877 -- which was before he took to dictating his work. A second mechanical point is that transcribers didn't have the skill, in the 19th century, to record as fast as people could speak. Another, non-mechanical point: It is the responsibility of men and women who seek an audience for their writing beyond the family to instruct or entertain, or to die trying. The ratio is not definitively established, between skills disposed of and weight of literary production.

The grand meaning of this lesson being that eminent people can write eminently awful books and get away with it, and that medical science falls short of shielding us from bad books.