I can’t begin to tell you tell you how relieved I am. It’s as if a lifetime’s burden has been lifted from my aching shoulders by an uncharacteristically benevolent angel. It’s as if several billion prime brain cells have been released from decades of worry duty and can be recycled into concerning themselves with things pleasant, like sex, or food, or Lesley Garrett; or can be sent as cannon fodder up to the front line next time I go on a bender. It’s as if my personal Road to Damascus has instantaneously sprouted high-tech twenty-first century halogen street-lighting.
But maybe I’d better explain.
For many years now, I’ve kept a Commonplace Book. Well – maybe ‘book’ is slightly too precise a term – what I have is a hotchpotch of ill-assorted bits of paper, scrawled with notes and filed all over the place; yellowing photcopies; articles excised from newspapers and mags; several scruffy notebooks that contain not only literary nuggets, but everything from recipes to out-of-date phone numbers for people I can’t remember ever having met, to details of the day’s take for an Antique Fair I did in Builth Wells in 1983; a library full of books with grubby, crumpled, fading Post-it notes doing duty as bookmarks; and a vague but rapidly deteriorating idea as to where I can lay my hands on some juicy morsel of literary merit that first tickled my fancy in 1954 or thereabouts.
So a couple of weeks ago I decided that the time had come for a major rationalisation programme. I’d enter the whole bang shoot onto my computer, neatly filed, referenced and cross-indexed. Tidiness is all.
A major task, this, but I’m getting there. Another six months should do it. No sweat, apart from a minor case of keyboard wrist and a strong possibility of terminal eyestrain. I’m even learning to read my own handwriting, a skill which has defeated me since I was five years old. And O the joy of re-discovering little gems that haven’t seen the light of day since I first read them in my teens, and have been misquoting from memory ever since.
But it wasn’t until I came across (after a good twenty years lying fallow at the bottom of a cardboard box) a parody of Pride and Prejudice written in the style of Dylan Thomas (by a comic genius called Stanley Sharpless), that it hit me. Bingo!
I’m never, ever, ever again going to have to force myself to attempt Jane Austen!
I have her Complete Works sitting on my bookshelf. Well, you do, don’t you. They’ve been there for years, glowering guilt at me from every virgin spine. And every so often, in a flush of misguided virtue, I’ve taken down P&P (I always start with P&P, for some reason) and tried to sneak into it. I can quote you the first sentence off by heart, but I don’t think I’ve ever got past the second page. Because frankly, the woman is plain bloody boring. It’s her prissy, decaffeinated, anaemic style that induces chronic ennui, not the stories per se, which aren’t bad - after all, they work beautifully on television or on film – but by God it’s dull stuff to read. And having managed without for sixty years, I suddenly realised that I don’t need to make the attempt any more. Yippeeee!
But it gets better, because of course the tedium quotient doesn’t only apply to St Jane. She’s just the tip of the wossname. For starters, I can dump dismal Dickens, piecemeal. Another example of the camera being mightier than the pen. If I feel a Dickens coming on I’ll rent a video of Oliver – at least the tunes are good. I can bin a busload of boring bloody Brontes. I can slap ‘Not Wanted on Voyage’ labels onto all twelve turgid volumes of Gibbon’s so-called masterpiece. I can consign Carlyle to deserved oblivion. I can trash great screeds of Milton – any good book of quotations will serve to supply a compilation album of the best bits – Milt’s Greatest Hits, as it were. I can leave Bunyan’s Pilgrim to Progress unaided and unread. I can forswear Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, Sir Walter-Scott-Fitzgerald, all those interminable Russian novels where everybody has at least three different sets of names and you have to draw up a genealogical flowchart as you go along so as to remember who’s doing what to whom, and why. I can quit trying to struggle through Garcia Lorca. Or Ibsen. Or Goethe. I can pare five centuries of French soi-disant literature down to Candide and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. And no – I’m not forgetting Proust. You can stuff Proust. Il pouvait ennuyer pour La France.
I can even (O Heresy ! O Blasphemy !) conveniently forget my self-imposed annual dose of The Faerie Queene.
It was Arnold Bennett who said something to the effect that “A list of the masterpieces I have never read would fill a volume.” Arnie-boy – I’m right in there with you. There are hundreds of worthy books that I’ve always felt I ought to read; some I’ve tried and failed miserably, some I’ve never got round to, and some I’ve never been able to face.
And I’ve just decided that I’m never going to bother. I’m only going to read what interests me, and the dickens take the rest.
Ain’t Freedom wonderful!